By MATTHEW PERRONE and MIKE STOBBE
WASHINGTON (AP) – U.S. health officials announced plans Wednesday to dispense COVID-19 booster vaccines to all Americans to shore up their protection amid the rising delta variant and signs that the effectiveness of vaccines are declining.
The plan, as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health agencies, calls for an additional dose eight months after people receive their second injection of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. Doses could start the week of September 20.
“Our plan is to protect the American people, stay ahead of this virus,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, when the agency cited a series of studies suggesting that vaccines are losing ground as the highly contagious variant spreads. spread.
People who received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine will likely need additional injections as well, health officials said. But they said they are waiting for more data.
The overall plan is subject to a Food and Drug Administration evaluation of the safety and efficacy of a third dose and a review by a CDC advisory panel.
The announcement came on the same day that the Biden administration said it would require nursing homes to order vaccinations for staff to continue receiving federal funding. Hundreds of thousands of nursing home workers remain unvaccinated, despite the increased risk of fatal infections among elderly residents.
Officials said it is “very clear” that the protection of vaccines against infections decreases over time, noting the worsening situation in Israel, which has seen an increase in severe cases, many of them in people already inoculated. . They said the United States needs to get over the problem before it takes a more lethal turn here and starts driving up hospitalizations and deaths among those vaccinated.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s leading expert on COVID-19, said one of the key lessons from the coronavirus is that it is better to “get ahead of it than chase it.”
Dr. Mark Mulligan, NYU Langone Health Center, welcomed the announcement, saying, “Part of leadership is being able to see around the corner and make tough decisions without having all the data. It seems to me that this is what they are doing here. “
Top scientists at the World Health Organization bitterly opposed the US plan, pointing out that poor countries are not getting enough vaccines for their initial rounds of injections.
“We are planning to deliver additional life jackets to people who already have life jackets, while letting other people drown without a single life jacket,” said Dr Michael Ryan, WHO chief of emergencies.
The organization’s chief scientist, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, said the evidence does not show boosters are necessary for everyone, warning that leaving billions of people unvaccinated in the developing world could encourage the emergence of new ones. variants and lead to “even more serious situations.”
US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy rejected the notion that the US must choose between “America and the world.”
“We clearly see our responsibility to both, and we have to do everything we can to protect people here at home, while recognizing that ending the epidemic around the world will be key,” Murthy said.
White House officials noted that the United States has donated 115 million doses to 80 countries, more than all other nations combined. They said the United States has enough vaccine to provide reinforcements to the American people.
Israel is already offering booster injections to people over 50 to control their delta surge. And European medical regulators said they are talking to vaccine developers about the idea.
Last week, US health officials recommended a third injection for some people with weakened immune systems, such as cancer patients and organ transplant recipients. Offering boosters to all Americans would be a major expansion of what is already the largest vaccination campaign in American history. Nearly 200 million Americans have received at least one injection.
Some experts have expressed concern that calling for boosters would undermine the public health message and reinforce opposition to the vaccine by raising more doubts in the minds of people who are already skeptical about the effectiveness of the injections.
Experts believe that health officials will recommend that the booster be from the same brand of vaccine that people initially received.
As for why vaccines appear to be less effective over time in stopping infections, there is evidence that the body’s immune response to injections is fading, as with other inoculations. But also, the vaccines may simply not protect against the delta variant as well as they do against the parent virus. Scientists are still trying to answer the question.
Officials said the eight-month deadline was a judgment call on when the vaccine’s protection against serious diseases might drop, according to the direction of the current data. “There is nothing magical about this number,” said the surgeon general.
The request for booster injections is a stark reminder that nearly 20 months after the outbreak, the United States still cannot contain the scourge that has killed 620,000 Americans and disrupted nearly every aspect of daily life.
Just weeks after President Joe Biden declared the country’s “independence” from COVID-19 on July 4, emergency rooms in parts of the South and West are overloaded again, with cases averaging nearly 140,000 per day, quadrupling in just one month.
In making its announcement, the CDC released a series of studies conducted during the delta surge suggesting that vaccines are still very effective in keeping Americans out of the hospital, but that their ability to prevent infections is declining markedly.
One of the studies looked at reported COVID-19 infections in residents of nearly 15,000 nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. It found that the efficacy of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines against infection dropped from about 74% in March, April, and early May to 53% in June and July.
The study looked at all COVID-19 infections, with or without symptoms. The researchers said more work is needed to determine if there was a higher incidence of infections that resulted in serious illness.
Another study was a look at 21 hospitals. It found that the efficacy of the vaccine in preventing COVID-19-associated hospitalizations was 86% between two and 12 weeks after the second dose and 84% between 13 and 24 weeks later. The difference was not considered significant.
A third study, conducted in New York State, found that protection against hospitalizations remained stable at about 95% for the nearly three months examined. But the vaccine’s effectiveness against new laboratory-confirmed infections dropped from about 92% in early May to about 80% in late July.
Additionally, the CDC released data from Mayo Clinic patients in Minnesota showing that in July, when the delta variant was prevalent, Moderna’s vaccine was 76% effective against infection and 42% effective against Pfizer.
Some scientists had been looking for signs that hospitalizations or deaths are increasing, as a necessary indicator that backup might be needed.
For some leading scientists, the new studies “would not be enough, by themselves, to advocate a booster,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University and liaison with an advisory panel of experts that helps CDC to formulate its vaccination recommendations.
Stobbe reported from New York. Associated Press writers Carla K. Johnson in Washington state and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this story.
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