In a joint statement, top health officials in the Biden administration, including Chief Medical Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said data pointed to antibody protection from the vaccines diminishing somewhat over time.
“The COVID-19 vaccines authorized in the United States continue to be remarkably effective in reducing risk of severe disease, hospitalization and death, even against the widely circulating delta variant," officials said. "We have been analyzing the scientific data closely from the United States and around the world to understand how long this protection will last and how we might maximize this protection ... 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."
Contingent on the FDA's authorization to use third doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, the Biden administration plans to make the booster shots available beginning the week of Sept. 20. They will be recommended for individuals 18 years of age and older who received their last dose at least eight months ago, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said in an Aug. 18 press briefing. The rollout will prioritize residents of long-term care facilities, who were among the earliest recipients of the vaccine.
Booster shots of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are not a part of the initial plans to offer additional doses.
“We also anticipate booster shots will likely be needed for people who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Administration of the J&J vaccine did not begin in the U.S. until March 2021, and we expect more data on J&J in the next few weeks. With those data in hand, we will keep the public informed with a timely plan for J&J booster shots as well," officials said in the statement.
Already, the FDA has authorized additional doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines for certain immunocompromised individuals.
The decision to recommend booster shots goes against guidance from the World Health Organization, which has called for countries with available vaccine supply to prioritize supporting nations with low vaccination rates before rolling out booster shots for the general public. However, in their statement, HHS officials said their "top priority" was protecting Americans from COVID-19.
"We also want to emphasize the ongoing urgency of vaccinating the unvaccinated in the U.S. and around the world. Nearly all the cases of severe disease, hospitalization and death continue to occur among those not yet vaccinated at all," they said. "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.”