Key FDA advisory committee rejects COVID vaccine boosters for the general population

A key advisory committee of the Food and Drug Administration overwhelmingly rejected vaccine boosters for the general U.S. population for now, but it voted unanimously in favor of giving boosters to those 65 and older as well as high risk individuals.The recommendations mark a pivotal moment in the debate around boosters. William Brangham joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, a key advisory committee of the Food and Drug administration overwhelmingly rejected vaccine boosters for the general U.S. population for now. But it voted unanimously in favor of giving boosters to those 65 and older and high-risk individuals.

    The recommendations are a pivotal moment in the debate around boosters. President Biden and other federal health officials had originally said they believed boosters would be available to the general public later this month. While today's vote is not binding for the FDA or the CDC, it is a big blow to the president's original plans.

    William Brangham has been monitoring the committee's deliberations, and he joins me now.

    Hi. It's good to see you.

  • William Brangham:

    Hi.

  • AMNA NAWAZ:

    So, the panel weighs a bunch of evidence, they decide no for general boosters for everyone, older Americans, high-risk individuals, yes for now.

    What was the evidence that they looked at?

  • William Brangham:

    The evidence that they heard today was mixed.

    And, again, as you as you mentioned at the beginning, the whole overarching question here is Delta is surging, hospital are full deaths are up. Are those of us who are vaccinated losing some of that critical protection that we think of that the vaccines are giving us? And the evidence, as I mentioned, were mixed.

    The CDC put out a bunch of data today, and they presented it to this panel. And that was mostly good news. They pointed out that, while Delta was 99 percent of the cases, all the approved vaccines gave high protection against severe disease, hospitalization and death.

    And this is really important. Those shots that we have taken are keeping, for the most part, people healthy, alive and out of the hospital. The CDC did note that there was some slippage in protection against infection, meaning these are the breakthrough cases.

    People who have been vaccinated, some of those cases are — people are getting sick, and — although most of them are mild and asymptomatic. And this is partly what's been worrying the Biden administration, that, although most of these cases are mild, some of them are not. People do get sick. They run high fevers. They have to be out of work for quite a few days.

    And, of course, the question about long COVID has not been addressed. So, it's this evidence, though, that the vaccines are doing a great job that made critics of boosters say, what's the rush? They're protecting us.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So it doesn't sound like there's a ton of urgency around general boosters, right?

    But the panel also heard data from Israeli officials. What was that about?

  • William Brangham:

    That's right.

    Israel, in some ways is a look into the future for us. They started their vaccination project before we did. So we can sort of look at what their experience has been and imagine might be us soon.

    And what the Israeli data that was presented today said, it was a bit more of a distinct waning of the vaccine. They were showing that the longer it's been since your shot, more likely to get infected. The longer — the older you were, the chances grew for that as well.

    So, Israel launched a big booster campaign back in July based on this data, and they were saying that the results were incredibly strong, a 10-fold boost in protection for that third shot. Israel is all Pfizer. They gave a third dose to people, and seeing this really strong protection with no adverse events.

    They did it for 60-year-olds and up, then 50-year-olds up and then on down. So they're very confident about it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So what now here in the States? For anyone who's eligible, when can they expect to get that third shot?

  • William Brangham:

    So, this FDA panel submits it to the FDA. The FDA itself then has to decide that this is something that they want to do.

    Then the CDC weighs in and says, OK, here's how we actually roll this out. So, as you mentioned, this is a little bit of a dent in what Biden had wanted to do. He wanted the general population to be able to do this.

    But, right now, it seems that at least those people who are considered most vulnerable, 65 and older, people who have comorbidities, obesity, disease, immunocompromised, and perhaps front-line medical workers, those people who are most likely to brush up against the virus, those are going to start getting boosters some time soon.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    William, what about this whole global fairness argument, the debate around this, right, the fact that Americans are going to be getting booster shots before millions of people around the world have even had their first vaccine shot? What about that?

  • William Brangham:

    Yes, this is this incredibly thorny issue that the WHO, the Africa CDC have been arguing — in fact, one WHO official likened this to us giving life jackets to people who already have life jackets while you leave other people to drown.

    And that argument has been made repeatedly. And it came up again today in this panel. The Biden administration argues, we can do both, we can give boosters to Americans, and we can help get vaccines to the world.

    In fact, today, they announced 500 million new doses that were purchased by the administration to give out. But this is no doubt an issue going forward. There are something like 45, I believe it is, million Americans who might get these boosters. We have enough of those doses already here in House. So while this has been a concern that's been raised, for now, that argument didn't win the day.

    And older Americans are going to start getting boosters pretty soon.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I expect we're going to hear more on this debate very, very soon.

    William Brangham covering it all, nice to see you.

  • William Brangham:

    Nice to see you.

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