Editor’s note: This story was updated with the CDC director’s endorsement.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, has signed off on an advisory panel’s earlier unanimous vote to recommend boosters for the Moderna and Johnson and Johnson COVID vaccines.
The decision now means that millions of Americans are eligible to get a booster shot for either the Pfizer, Moderna, or J&J COVID vaccines.
“The evidence shows that all three COVID-19 vaccines authorized in the United States are safe – as demonstrated by the over 400 million vaccine doses already given. And, they are all highly effective in reducing the risk of severe disease, hospitalization, and death, even in the midst of the widely circulating Delta variant,” Dr. Walensky said in a CDC news release.
She also signed off on the panel’s suggestion that individuals can mix or match the booster from any one of the three available COVID-19 vaccines.
The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommended in a late afternoon 15-0 vote that everyone over age 18 who are at least 2 months past their Johnson & Johnson vaccine should get a booster, an endorsement that affects an estimated 13 million Americans.
Those eligible for a booster at least 6 months after their last Moderna shot are the same groups who can get a Pfizer booster.
- Anyone over age 65.
- Those over age 18 with an underlying health condition that puts them at risk of severe COVID-19.
- Those over age 18 who may be at higher risk of a COVID-19 infection because they live or work in a risky setting.
These recommendations are in line with the Food and Drug Administration’s Oct. 20 authorization of the boosters, along with the ability to mix-and-match vaccines.
There are an estimated 47 million Pfizer recipients and 39 million people vaccinated with Moderna who are now eligible for a booster dose, according to data presented by the CDC.
Before voting, some committee members expressed discomfort in broadly recommending boosters, stressing that there is very little evidence supporting the need for boosters in people younger than age 50.
“I can’t say that I am comfortable that anybody under 50 – an otherwise healthy individual – needs a booster vaccine at this time with either Moderna or Pfizer,” said ACIP member Sarah Long, MD, professor of pediatrics at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
She said she would try to mitigate any potential harm by having some kind of age restriction on the otherwise worried well.
“We don’t usually have the vaccines [for] the worried well. We give it because we have a need that’s worth the risk, and there’s a burden of severity of disease,” Dr. Long said.
The evidence to date shows that all the vaccines authorized for use in the U.S. continue to protect people well against severe COVID-19 outcomes, including hospitalization and death.
But breakthrough infections are on the rise, especially for people who initially received the Johnson and Johnson one-dose vaccine.
On Oct. 21, Pfizer released data from a study of more than 10,000 fully vaccinated people. Half were randomly assigned to get a booster of their Comirnaty vaccine, the other half were given a placebo.
Over the ensuing 2.5 months, there were 5 COVID-19 cases in the boosted group, and 109 in the group that got a placebo.
The data were posted in a press release and have not yet been peer reviewed, but are the first to show clinical effectiveness of boosters at preventing COVID-19 infections.
Data recently considered by the FDA and CDC for booster doses come from studies that were mostly shorter and smaller. These studies looked at biomarkers of immunity like the concentration of antibodies in a person’s blood and the percentage of study participants who saw a boost to those antibodies.
The studies demonstrated that boosters indeed restore high levels of antibodies, but unlike the newest Pfizer data they were not able to show that these antibodies prevented COVID-19.
These studies also weren’t powered to pick up on any less common safety problems that might arise after another dose of the shots.