U.S. officials now say most Americans should get a third COVID-19 vaccine shot. Experts worry about the rest of the world.
Millions of Americans will soon become eligible for COVID-19 vaccine booster shots, the Biden administration announced on Wednesday, granting them access to a third inoculation before the vast majority of the global population has even received a single dose.
Top U.S. health officials, including CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, acting FDA Commissioner Dr. Janet Woodcock, and chief White House medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said in a joint statement that the shots would begin to be offered on September 20, with Americans who received two doses of an mRNA vaccine, either Pfizer or Moderna, becoming eligible for their booster eight months after they received their second shot. Americans who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are likely to need a booster at some point as well, officials said, though more data was needed to come up with a plan for those individuals.
"We are not recommending that you go out and get a booster today," Surgeon General Vivek Murthy stressed in a White House briefing, adding that health care workers, nursing home residents, and others who were among the first to be vaccinated last year would be at the front of the line for boosters. Government officials last week recommended that some Americans with compromised immune systems receive boosters as soon as possible.
But the decision to recommend boosters to all Americans faced quick pushback from global health officials and even some experts within the United States.
In early August, the World Health Organization asked wealthy countries to impose a moratorium on booster shots for at least two months, as millions around the world wait for their first dose.
"We should not accept countries that have already used most of the global supply of vaccines using even more of it while the world's most vulnerable people remain unprotected," said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. He noted that of the more than 4 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered around the world, over 80% have gone to wealthy countries, despite the fact that those nations make up less than half of the global population.
Shortly after Wednesday's announcement, the global poverty organization ONE Campaign blasted the move, releasing a statement that said the decision "threatens to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots."
"It's outrageous that a healthy, vaccinated individual will be able to get a third shot before the elderly and health workers in low-income countries can get a single dose," the statement continued. "The fact that the US and other wealthy countries are in need of booster shots is an indictment of the world's failure to have a global plan to end this virus."
Asked about such criticism, officials promised the United States would continue to support global vaccination efforts while offering boosters to its own population.
"I do not accept the idea that we have to choose between America and the world. We clearly see our responsibility to both," Murthy said.
White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients noted that while the United States expects to be providing 100 million booster shots to Americans, it would be giving double the number of doses to the global supply, with an ultimate goal of donating more than 600 million shots.
As a justification for the booster decision, health officials pointed to new research that shows waning efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines against the highly contagious delta variant, particularly when it comes to protecting against mild and moderate infections.
A trio of studies released by the CDC on Wednesday reveals that while the COVID shots remain highly effective against hospitalizations and deaths, their strength against less severe COVID cases weakened in recent months. One study examining COVID cases and hospitalizations in New York over the summer found that effectiveness against new COVID diagnoses fell from 92% to 80% from May 3 through July 25, as the prevalence of delta variant infections increased.
But while this data might support the decision to give immunocompromised Americans boosters, it doesn't mean all Americans will automatically require them, some experts said.
"Feeling sick like a dog and laid up in bed, but not in the hospital with severe Covid, is not a good enough reason," Bellevue Hospital Center infectious disease specialist Dr. Celine Gounder told the New York Times. "We'll be better protected by vaccinating the unvaccinated here and around the world."
There are also fears that prioritizing American booster shots over global vaccinations could lead to more virus variants, which can develop when the virus mutates as it spreads widely. Health experts say it's easier for the virus to spread and mutate when there are more unvaccinated people around the globe.
"If we want the vaccine to protect us against symptoms and transmissions (in the first world), then we do so at the cost of others around the globe & the cost of future variants," tweeted public health expert and former White House senior COVID-19 adviser Andy Slavitt.
There's also the question of whether promoting boosters will increase vaccine hesitancy, as officials struggle to convince many Americans to receive even their first two doses.
In Wednesday's briefing, officials pointed to positive trends in terms of initial vaccinations, highlighting that 200 million Americans will have received at least one vaccine shot by day's end, the highest two-week total of first doses administered since the beginning of June.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.