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Scientists are worried about giving out COVID-19 boosters so soon. Here’s why

The Biden administration called for booster shots. Scientists are worried about the messaging and the lack of data about side effects

Nurse Mary Ezzat prepares to administers a Pfizer COVID-19 booster shot.
Nurse Mary Ezzat prepares to administer a Pfizer COVID-19 booster shot to Jessica M. Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, at UCI Medical Center in Orange, Calif.
Jeff Gritchen/The Orange County Register via Associated Press

The Biden administration said earlier this week that all Americans should look to get a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot. But scientists said health officials may have jumped the gun.

Experts told Kaiser Health News that more information is needed about the side effects and adverse effects of the booster shots before requiring all Americans to get them.

“I think we’ve scared people,” Dr. Paul Offit, an adviser to the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, told Kaiser Health News.

Earlier this week, U.S. health officials said all Americans can start to get COVID-19 booster shots. This came after officials — which included the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — reviewed new data that showed that fully vaccinated people were not fully protected against the delta variant and the current COVID-19 surge. The delta variant may be spreading faster and farther.

Offit, the NIH adviser, said the announcement of booster shots may send the wrong message about vaccines.

“We sent a terrible message,” Offit said. “We just sent a message out there that people who consider themselves fully vaccinated were not fully vaccinated. And that’s the wrong message, because you are protected against serious illness.”

That’s because health officials are trying to do two things at once — promote the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines while preparing people for potential boosters to protect them against variants this fall. The boosters are meant to protect people when vaccine efficacy starts to drop off, too.

Right now, about 170 million people are fully vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, which is about 51.2% of the American population, according to the CDC. About 60.4% of people have had at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Breakthrough cases are rare among vaccinated people, as are severe illness and hospitalizations. Recent data from the CDC found that 99.999% of fully vaccinated Americans have not had a COVID-19 breakthrough case that led to hospitalization or death, meaning the vaccines are working.

“It’s still holding up relatively well against severe disease and hospitalization, but we’ve also seen that we actually need more protection against the delta virus,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Indeed, there has been “evidence of reduced protection against mild and moderate disease,” officials told The New York Times.

So, to combat the reduced protection, the Biden administration said COVID-19 booster shots will start being offered on Sept. 20 for all Americans who had been fully vaccinated eight months ago, which includes health care workers and the vulnerable population, per The Associated Press.

But now, there might be a misconception that vaccines don’t work. And that’s not the case, experts said.

“Arguably, I think that the federal government is simply trying to stay ahead of the curve,” said Dr. Joshua Barocas, associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado, according to KHN. “I have not seen robust data yet to suggest that it is better to boost Americans who have gotten two vaccines than invest resources and time in getting unvaccinated people across the world vaccinated.”

These aren’t the only experts to speak out about this. Walensky, the CDC director, said earlier this week on the “Today” show that the CDC is “hopeful” the COVID-19 booster shots will “give you a higher level of protection, not just against the delta variant but against a broad range of variants.”

She said the CDC hopes that the boosters “decrease the level of virus that you have and make it less transmissible.”

Experts recently told The New York Times that there are some Americans who do not need the COVID-19 vaccine booster shots since vaccines are stopping hospitalizations and severe illness.

Dr. Céline Gounder, an infectious disease specialist at Bellevue Hospital Center, told The New York Times that boosters should really be given when there’s a variant that kills off vaccine efficacy, or the vaccine fails to work against current mutations of the virus.

“Feeling sick like a dog and laid up in bed, but not in the hospital with severe COVID, is not a good enough reason,” to issue booster shots. Gounder told The New York Times. “We’ll be better protected by vaccinating the unvaccinated here and around the world.”