Change of plans: Feds to recommend COVID vaccine boosters after six months instead of eight

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

“I don’t understand the timetable for the COVID vaccine booster shots,” I wrote last week after the eight-month timeframe was announced. Delta is already raging in the southeast and the Pacific northwest; there’s no reason to think it won’t overrun the northeast and midwest in the next month or two. Millions of seniors were vaccinated in February or later, which would mean we’d be well into fall — and, for many of them, into a ferocious new local wave — if they had to wait eight months before they had a chance to boost their already waning immunity.

Why the hell would we do that? We should want seniors boosted at the start of fall so that they have six months of solid protection over the winter, when scientists expect another massive burst of infections. “If we get Delta outbreaks all over the U.S. in the next few weeks, panicky bureaucrats are inevitably going to move up the timetable for boosters from eight months to six out of desperation to get seniors immunized before the variant reaches them,” I said in last week’s post. “Why not plan for that worst-case scenario now by following a six-month schedule anyway?”

Someone in the federal bureaucracy has evidently come around on that logic. According to the WSJ, Americans will be asked to wait six months from the date of their second dose to get a third, not eight.

Federal regulators are likely to approve a third Covid-19 shot for vaccinated adults starting at least six months after the second dose rather than the eight-month gap they previously announced, a person familiar with the plans said, as the Biden administration steps up preparations for delivering boosters to the public…

The Biden administration and companies have said that there should be enough supply for boosters. The U.S. has purchased a combined 1 billion doses from Pfizer and Moderna…

Pfizer and BioNTech said Wednesday that the third dose generated a stronger immune system [response in trials] against the original Covid-19 strain compared with the original two-dose course.

The submission includes data from a late-stage trial of 306 subjects between 18 and 55 years who received a third dose between 4.8 and eight months after completing the two-dose course of vaccination, Pfizer said. Neutralizing antibodies—which play a key role in the immune system—were more than three times as much when measured one month after the third dose, compared with one month after the second dose.

Side effects after the third dose were reportedly similar to those after the second dose. Why Pfizer’s trial didn’t involve subjects over the age of 55 is unclear to me, and it’s strange that the data is based on efficacy against the original virus instead of Delta. (Maybe the trial was finished before Delta became prevalent.) But we know from Israeli data that a third shot does appear to work against Delta, providing four times as much protection against infection and five to six times as much protection against hospitalization.

Boosters have been rolling out in Israel only since the start of the month, though, too late to hold back a gigantic wave. I assume the feds are looking at this case curve and thinking, “Why wait a second longer on third doses than we have to?”

Yesterday was one of the worst days there of the entire pandemic with a per capita case count equivalent to more than 300,000 in the U.S. “In a Sunday press conference,” the Daily Beast reported, “the directors of seven public hospitals announced that they could no longer admit any coronavirus patients. With 670 COVID-19 patients requiring critical care, their wards are overflowing and staff are at breaking point.” It’s hard to believe a country that was at double-digit case counts nationally two months ago is facing a crisis again, but between their disaster and what we’re coping with in the south at the moment, it would be madness to delay the boosters unnecessarily.

So … why were the feds planning to do that until this afternoon? Why didn’t they have a firm timetable in mind when they first announced booster shots were coming last week? Did they not think at the time that they had enough supply on hand to meet a crush of demand if they suddenly made tens of millions of seniors eligible on September 20, when the boosters will begin and many will be beyond the six-month waiting period? Or did their calculus change after the FDA fully approved the Pfizer vaccine? I suspect the feds had been holding off on authorizing boosters for fear that the prospect of having to get a third dose might dissuade vaccine holdouts who were already leery about getting the first two. Now that full approval has been granted and more businesses are starting to mandate the jab, there’s less to worry about with respect to people resisting.

I wonder too if the feds looked at the early data coming out of schools and figured they should make parents eligible for boosters ASAP to try to limit the amount of household contagion after kids bring the virus home. NPR published a story a few days ago about vaccinated moms and dads ending up sick as dogs after their kids returned from play dates or soccer matches and infected them. “Nationwide between Aug. 5 and Aug 12, about 121,000 children tested positive for the virus, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association. That’s a 23% increase over the prior week,” the outlet reported. The Charleston County School District in South Carolina recently found that “even with only sports practices and summer camps underway, positive Covid-19 cases among public-school students in the last month were on track to surpass those seen in all of the fall semester of 2020.”

Lots of kids are going to get infected this fall and spread it to their families. The children will almost all be fine and their vaccinated parents will be … not hospitalized, in all likelihood, but in some cases laid up for awhile recovering. There’ll be substantial disruption to households and workplaces as a result. The sooner the boosters go out, the less disruption there’ll be.

I’ll leave you with the head of Pfizer looking ahead to when we get a new variant that can evade the vaccines entirely.