Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the Chief Medical Advisor to President Joe Biden, issued a warning Tuesday that breakthrough cases of COVID-19 for people who are vaccinated may increase during the winter, and that the best way to prevent such outcomes might be expanding who is eligible for a booster shot of a vaccine.
Fauci, who made the comments during a pre-taped interview for the 2021 STAT Summit this week, said that, while unvaccinated people were at greater risk, waning immunity levels for some who had received COVID vaccines could mean that they’d be more vulnerable to the virus in the winter, especially with the highly transmissible delta variant accounting for nearly all cases worldwide.
“The somewhat unnerving aspect of it is that if you keep the level of dynamics of the virus in the community at a high level — obviously the people who are most vulnerable are the unvaccinated — but when you have a virus as transmissible as delta, in the context of waning immunity, that dynamic is going to negatively impact even the vaccinated people,” Fauci said. “So it’s a double whammy.”
Fauci added that a third booster shot of the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA-based vaccines, as well as a second shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, may become the new standard for what is considered a “full” vaccination.
Booster shots are currently only recommended by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for people over the age of 65, who have underlying medical conditions, or who may be at greater risk due to being exposed to more individuals in their daily lives.
The FDA authorized the administering of booster shots for certain populations back in September. While their recommendation allowed millions of Americans to get an extra dose of a vaccine, the Biden administration had wanted the agency to go further, to allow most adults, not just those who are at greater risk of contracting the virus, to have the ability to get another shot.
Now it appears the FDA is preparing to change course, and may recommend a booster dose to all adults as early as this week.
Both the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would have to sign off on the idea for it to become official policy, but several states have already moved forward on boosters. Indeed, in Arkansas, California, Colorado and New Mexico, third vaccination shots have been expanded to all adults, not just those in at-risk populations, and in New York City on Monday, health officials also encouraged any adults wanting to get a booster to get one.
One of the major issues contributing to the ongoing spread of the virus, however, is the fact that not enough Americans are getting vaccinated. Many experts believe that between 80 and 90 percent of the U.S. population overall would need to get vaccinated in order to successfully stop the spread of coronavirus. Unfortunately, only about 59 percent of Americans are currently fully vaccinated, and more than a quarter of Americans, according to polling, say they won’t ever get a vaccine for coronavirus or are skeptical about getting one.
Public health experts say booster shots, while helpful to those who want to stay protected, won’t be enough to get the virus under control. “Even if some gain can ultimately be obtained from boosting, it will not outweigh the benefits of providing initial protection to the unvaccinated,” a report from the health journal The Lancet said in October. “If vaccines are deployed where they would do the most good, they could hasten the end of the pandemic by inhibiting further evolution of variants.”
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), which advises against boosters at this time, the push for additional COVID vaccine doses in the U.S. and other countries with relatively high vaccination rates won’t do much good from a global health perspective, and is a significantly less effective strategy for combating the global pandemic than supplying nations that have less access to vaccines.
“Offering booster doses to a large proportion of a population when many have not yet received even a first dose undermines the principle of national and global equity,” a statement from WHO said last month. “Prioritizing booster doses over speed and breadth in the initial dose coverage may also damage the prospects for global mitigation of the pandemic, with severe implications for the health, social and economic well-being of people globally.”