In light of rising COVID-19 cases and the highly contagious Delta variant, the Biden Administration announced on Wednesday that Americans who received the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines will soon be eligible to receive booster shots. According to a group of public health and medical experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, individuals can receive a booster shot eight months after they became fully vaccinated. Those who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will "likely" need a booster shot, too, but officials are still collecting data.
The collective acknowledged that all three authorized vaccines offer significant protection against the Delta variant, which accounts for 98.8% of U.S. cases. In particular, they severely reduce the threat of serious illness, hospitalization, and death. But for a while, it wasn't known how long this protection would last.
"The available data make very clear that protection against SARS-CoV-2 infection begins to decrease over time following the initial doses of vaccination, and in association with the dominance of the Delta variant, we are starting to see evidence of reduced protection against mild and moderate disease," wrote the group. "Based on our latest assessment, the current protection against severe disease, hospitalization, and death could diminish in the months ahead, especially among those who are at higher risk or were vaccinated during the earlier phases of the vaccination rollout."
In July, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla told CNBC that the vaccine's 96.2% efficacy rate steadily declines an average of 6% every two months. "We are very, very confident that a third dose, a booster, will take up the immune response to levels that will be enough to protect against the Delta variant," Bourla said. Moderna reported that its vaccine remains 93% effective for at least six months, but this rate will likely start to wane after that.
On Friday, following authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, the CDC recommended that only immunocompromised people receive booster shots. Eligibility expanded to all Americans in light of new data from Israel, said National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins. "In the Israeli data, the people who got immunized in January are the ones that are now having more breakthrough cases," he said. "Mostly, of course, these are symptomatic but not serious, but you're starting to see a little bit of a trend towards some of those requiring hospitalization."
But not everyone supports the idea of booster shots. In a press briefing, World Health Organization director Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called for a moratorium on boosters until the end of September. "We cannot — and 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 Ghebreyesus.
Vaccine inequity has been a problem since initial rollouts in January and February, but the disparity has only become more and more stark. According to recent data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, just 1% of people in low-income countries have received at least one shot, compared to 51% of people in high-income countries.
The Biden Administration addressed these concerns — and concerns that the U.S. should be focusing on individuals who haven't been vaccinated at all — by pledging to tackle these issues while administering booster shots.
"We will continue to ramp up efforts to increase vaccinations here at home and to ensure people have accurate information about vaccines from trusted sources," reads the statement. "We will also continue to expand our efforts to increase the supply of vaccines for other countries, building further on the more than 600 million doses we have already committed to donate globally."