FDA Advisory Panel Recommends COVID Booster Shot for 65-year-olds and Older

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A technician inspects filled vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the company's facility in Puurs, in March
A technician inspects filled vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the company's facility in Puurs, in MarchCredit: ap

An influential federal advisory panel has recommended authorizing a Pfizer booster shot against COVID-19 to Americans aged 65 or older and high-risk populations, the New York Times reported Friday.

The panel, however, rejected administering a third dose of the vaccine to the majority of Americans, aged 16 or over, in a sweeping 16-2 vote. The decision was seen as a blow to the Biden administration’s effort to shore up people’s protection against the virus amid the highly contagious delta variant.

Over several hours of discussion, members of the Food and Drug Administration panel of outside experts voiced frustration that Pfizer had provided little data on safety of extra doses.

The FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee considered data from Israel, which has been administering booster doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

The experts complained that data provided by Israeli researchers about their booster campaign might not be suitable for predicting the U.S. experience.

While U.S. health officials, some other countries and vaccine makers have said boosters are needed, many scientists and vaccine experts disagree.

The FDA staff said in documents prepared for the committee this week that the vaccine Pfizer Inc developed with Germany's BioNTech SE is still very effective at preventing severe illness and death and that the evidence is mixed on whether its efficacy declines over time.

Pfizer, which is arguing for broad use of a third shot, submitted data from an analysis of over 300 participants in its late stage clinical trial showing that the vaccine’s efficacy diminished by around 6 percent every two months after the second dose, and that an additional shot boosted immunity.

The effectiveness of the second dose of the vaccine waned six months after administration, making a booster necessary, Israeli health officials had said.

Israel began offering a COVID-19 booster to people as young as age 12 last month, expanding a campaign that began in July for people over 60.

Israel's Prime Minister Naftali Bennett argued in The Economist Friday that the booster shot "protects people, the economy and social wellbeing" as well as preserving the public's trust in vaccines.

A new analysis by Israeli scientists published on Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine found that among 1.1 million people age 60 or older who had been fully vaccinated at least 5 months earlier, those who received a booster were less likely to be infected or become severely ill than those who did not get the third shot.

The booster debate gained urgency as U.S. COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths surged due to the highly transmissible delta variant of the virus, mostly among the unvaccinated. But infections among fully vaccinated people have risen and they can spread the virus on occasion, mostly to unvaccinated people.

Recent polls have shown most vaccinated Americans want a booster to enhance their protection.

Larger populations may take longer 

Wall Street analysts see the additional shots ultimately getting approved for the broader population.

“We expect a potential positive FDA support for boosters for elderly ahead of Biden’s rollout, but larger populations may take longer for broad support and approval,” Jefferies analyst Michael Yee said in an email.

Scientists say the strongest evidence for boosters is for older adults and other high risk populations.

“My guess is we are going to end up with a recommendation for booster doses for a certain subpopulation, such as adults older than 65,” said Bill Moss, executive director of the International Vaccine Access Center at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

More than 1.9 million Americans have already gotten a booster dose after the government authorized them for people with compromised immune systems, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Eight top health officials in the Biden Administration – including the heads of the FDA and the CDC – said in August they believe booster shots will be needed because emerging data shows that protection against COVID-19 decreases over time.

A booster campaign is planned for the week of September 20, contingent on backing by the FDA and CDC.

An FDA decision on a booster will come after the committee recommendation. Advisers to CDC will meet next Wednesday and Thursday after which the agency’s director, Rochelle Walensky, will decide whether to follow their advice.

Moderna Inc has also asked for approval of a booster and released data on Wednesday showing that protection from its vaccine also wanes over time. That is not expected to be discussed at Friday's meeting.

Jonathan Lis contributed to this report.

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