An advisory committee to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Friday overwhelmingly voted against recommending a booster shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for almost everybody over the age of 16 who got vaccinated at least six months ago. The vote effectively rejected President Joe Biden’s plan to start rolling out booster doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine for the general population on Sept. 20. The administration publicly announced that plan a month ago, but the FDA panel last week said there was not yet enough efficacy and safety data to support it. Instead, the advisory committee only endorsed extra shots for a narrower slice of the population: those 65 and older and those at high risk of severe disease. The panel also said people at risk of being exposed to COVID-19 at work, such as health care workers, should be offered boosters. The recommendation is nonbinding, and the FDA is expected to make its own decision on whether to approve the booster dose this week when the CDC will also meet to figure out who should get the extra shot and at what point.
Friday’s surprising turn of events only added to questions about boosters since Biden’s announcement. Such questions were exacerbated by an editorial last week—signed by two top FDA scientists—that rejected offering boosters to healthy people. The mixed messaging from the federal government has frustrated state leaders, some of whom have decided to take matters into their own hands, Politico reports. “For several weeks now, states have had to operate without clear guidance from the federal government regarding these booster shots,” Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, said earlier this month. He criticized the Biden administration’s “confusing and contradictory messaging” and issued executive orders authorizing an additional dose for anyone 65 and older in his state living in congregate settings, such as nursing homes. The CDC did approve third doses of Pfizer and Moderna boosters for some people with weakened immune systems in August, but those recommendations were not based on age alone. Hogan’s communications director claimed the governor is “relying on [the CDC’s] expansive view to deem seniors in congregate settings as immunocompromised.”
Other leaders, citing the reality of the pandemic on the ground, have also grown impatient, and some had already encouraged constituents to seek a third dose even before the FDA panel’s Friday vote. Colorado Governor Jared Polis, a Democrat, last week encouraged seniors to get an extra shot, saying at a press conference that “if you are 70, 80, if you have some weakened immune system, go ahead and get that booster today” while deriding the federal government’s inaction. “The FDA needs to get out of their ivory tower and realize there is a real-life pandemic with 900 hospitalizations in Colorado, tens of thousands across the country. We have the ability to end it. We need to show the will to end it,” Polis said.
At least one governor wants to go further than the FDA panel’s recommendation, like Biden’s initial plan. “I strongly, strongly encourage [FDA] to approve … people to go that are six months out” from their last dose, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, a Republican, whose state is experiencing its worst surge to date and has an aging population, said last week. Clay Marsh, the head of West Virginia’s COVID response, told Politico that the state asked the White House to let them become a pilot site for booster shots given the record levels of hospitalizations, but it was to no avail. “It just came down to, ‘FDA needs to make that decision,’” Marsh told the outlet. The FDA panel’s ruling on Friday puts the state’s plan to rollout boosters to most people on hold, WV News reports. “I think if there is any state out there that needs the booster for the general public, it’s probably us,” Justice said.
State officials aren’t the only ones pressing for answers on whether the general population should get boosters. Members of the public raised questions following Friday’s recommendations, the New York Times reports, with one California resident tweeting, “Can you explain why boosters are being recommended for high risk people but the general population needs to wait for further testing? This makes no sense.” Health experts, too, had questions.
“This is causing more confusion. Wasn’t it a mistake for the president to announce [his original plan] before the FDA and CDC issued their guidance?” CNN anchor Jake Tapper, likely speaking for many Americans, asked Dr. Anthony Fauci on Sunday. The nation’s top infectious disease expert defended the move, saying the Biden administration made it clear that the plan “was pending and on the condition of the examination of all of the data by the FDA.” Fauci also defended Friday’s turn of events on ABC’s This Week Sunday. “These are the kinds of things that when you make a decision, you don’t snap your finger and it gets rolled out the next day, and that’s I think the thing that the people in the United States need to understand,” he said, adding: “I’m not disappointed, I think the process worked.”
More Great Stories From Vanity Fair
— How a Deadly Crash Upended South Dakota Politics
— Matt Gaetz Tries to Shift the Narrative With a MAGA Romance
— Sebastian Junger on How the U.S. Corrupted Afghanistan
— Rudy Giuliani Is One Week Away From Waxing His Back in a Sweetgreen
— New York Prosecutors Are Full Steam Ahead to Take Down the Trump Organization
— How Turf Wars Mucked Up America’s Exit From Afghanistan
— Biden’s COVID-19 Origins Report Leaves the Lab Leak on the Table
— Governor Kristi Noem Joins Fellow Republicans in Quest to Kill Constituents
— From the Archive: The Man in the Window
— Not a subscriber? Join Vanity Fair to receive full access to VF.com and the complete online archive now.