The Biden administration got ahead of the science last month in proposing to make all Americans vaccinated against COVID-19 eligible for a booster shot. That’s why it was good to see a federal advisory panel last week reassert the role that data and critical thinking must play in managing this pandemic. The White House and public health experts may share the same goals, but science — not politics — must shape the nation’s vaccination strategy.
An advisory panel to the Food and Drug Administration overwhelmingly rejected recommending broad-based booster shots for the Pfizer vaccine. Instead, the committee backed a narrower plan, recommending boosters for Americans 65 and older and for those at high-risk of COVID-19. Committee members said the data showed the Pfizer vaccine offered strong protection against the virus, including the highly infectious delta variant, and that there was insufficient evidence the general public needed a third shot at this time. The FDA, which is not bound by the recommendation, is expected to decide the matter this week.
The 16 to 2 vote against a Pfizer booster for most adults receiving the vaccine represented a political setback for the Biden administration, which last month proposed that most Americans receive a booster eight months after receiving their second shot. That rollout was to begin this fall, in what the administration hoped would be an insurance policy to stem rising case counts and serious hospitalizations as the winter season approached. The panel’s recommendation would make millions of Americans eligible under the high-risk category, including health care workers and first responders. But committee member Dr. Paul A. Offit of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia summed up the real challenge; “we need to vaccinate the unvaccinated,” he said. A third dose would do little to get vaccine holdouts in the door, and it could complicate the messaging campaign in the hardest-hit states.
Biden’s motivations may have been admirable, but the president should have supported a vaccination strategy only after public health experts reached a consensus on the best way forward. The back and forth created unnecessary confusion at a critical time, as some states including Florida struggled with a huge surge in new infections and hospitalizations. In that sense, the panel’s move underscored the role that independent peer review must play in federal policymaking. And it was another reminder of how the scientific community is learning from COVID in real time.
The FDA’s expected decision this week comes as Pfizer announced Monday that its vaccine works for children ages 5 to 11 and that it will seek U.S. authorization for this age group soon. While vaccines are available for anyone 12 and older, the authorized use for younger age groups is seen as critical for stemming pediatric infections, which have skyrocketed since the school year began.
The FDA has said it could evaluate the results of the child inoculation studies in a matter of weeks of Pfizer submitting them. The agency should make a priority of that review even as it finalizes a plan for boosters. And the president should continue playing his appropriate role as a vaccination advocate and a fair-minded administrator of COVID-related resources. That’s the surest way to continue building public confidence in the vaccines and getting more Americans protected.