CDC Panel OKs COVID Vaccine Boosters for All Adults, Especially Those 50 and Older

The Food and Drug Administration and a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention panel said Friday that COVID-19 booster shots should be made available to all Americans aged 18 and older.

The move was in response to increased calls to make the boosters more widely available ahead of the holiday season when people will be traveling more.

The CDC is expected to give final approval later Friday.

Boosters are for anyone who is more than six months past their second Moderna or Pfizer dose or two months past their Johnson & Johnson shot. The CDC stressed during Friday's meeting they especially recommend the boosters for adults 50 and older.

"It's a stronger recommendation," CDC adviser Dr. Matthew Daley of Kaiser Permanente Colorado told the Associated Press. "I want to make sure we provide as much protection as we can."

Previously, the booster was available to vulnerable groups such as older people and people with chronic health conditions, though several states opened booster eligibility to all adults, without FDA approval.

"We heard loud and clear that people needed something simpler—and this, I think, is simple," FDA vaccine chief Dr. Peter Marks told the AP.

After the FDA moved Friday morning to approve the eligibility expansion, CDC scientists debated the topic in the afternoon before unanimously approving.

According to the AP report, though the COVID-19 vaccines provide good protection against serious infection without boosters, their effectiveness wanes over time so a booster is recommended to shore up protection.

Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech studied the booster's effects. They found that the protection against symptomatic infections in the 10,000 adults of all ages they studied rose to about 95 percent, even with the delta variant. FDA regulators decided this was enough evidence to back the booster eligibility expansion.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

COVID-19 vaccine, booster shot
The FDA has encouraged opening COVID-19 booster shots to all adults, November 19, letting them choose another dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. Above, licensed practical nurse Yokasta Castro, of Warwick, Rhode Island, draws a Moderna COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe at a mass vaccination clinic, on May 19, at Gillette Stadium, in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Steven Senne/AP Photo

New COVID-19 cases have climbed steadily over the last two weeks, especially in states where colder weather is driving people indoors. Some states didn't wait for federal officials to act and opened boosters to all adults.

Marks said he understood why some governors got out ahead of the FDA.

"We're going into a cold season, cases going up, high travel season, people indoors sharing good holiday times together," he said. "They probably saw the specter of what could happen here, and were trying—well intentioned—to do something."

Boosters for everyone was the Biden administration's original goal. But in September, a panel of FDA advisers voted overwhelmingly against that idea based on the vaccines' continued effectiveness in most age groups. Instead, they endorsed an extra Pfizer dose only for the most vulnerable.

Last month, backed by its advisory panel, the FDA cleared Moderna boosters—using a dose half as big as the first two shots—for the same vulnerable groups.

But there has been some frustration inside the White House and among allies of the president that the long and public regulatory process contributed to misinformation and confusion around the boosters.

Administration officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, continued making the case for using boosters more widely, noting that even milder infections in younger people can cause "long COVID" and other complications.

"I don't know of any other vaccine where we only worry about keeping people out of the hospital," Fauci said Wednesday.

But the administration had pledged that the decision would fall to scientists. This time around, the FDA didn't consult its advisers, saying scientific issues surrounding Pfizer's and Moderna's boosters "do not raise questions that would benefit from additional discussion."

Regulators concluded the overall benefits of added protection outweighed risks of rare side effects from Moderna's or Pfizer's vaccine, such as a type of heart inflammation seen mostly in young men.

More than 195 million Americans are fully vaccinated, defined as having received two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. More than 30 million already have received a booster.

Before the expansion, people who received the Pfizer or Moderna vaccinations were eligible for a third dose if they're elderly or at high risk of COVID-19 because of health problems, their jobs or their living conditions. Because a single J&J shot hasn't proven as effective as its two-dose competitors, any J&J recipient can get a booster at least two months later.

People who don't meet the criteria have been able to get an extra shot because many vaccine sites don't check qualifications.

The FDA previously ruled that people getting a booster can receive a different brand from the vaccine they received initially.

Some experts worry that all the attention to boosters may harm efforts to reach the 60 million Americans who are eligible for vaccinations but haven't gotten the shots. There's also growing concern that rich countries are offering widespread boosters when poor countries haven't been able to vaccinate more than a small fraction of their populations.

"In terms of the No. 1 priority for reducing transmission in this country and throughout the world, this remains getting people their first vaccine series," said Dr. David Dowdy of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

COVID-19 booster, vaccinated person
The CDC will be debating Friday whether to allow COVID-19 booster shots to all U.S. adults. Above, Safeway pharmacist Shahrzad Khoobyari (right) administers a Pfizer COVID-19 booster vaccination into the arm of Chen Knifsend at a vaccination booster shot clinic on October 1 in San Rafael, California. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Updated 11/19/2021, 4:28 p.m. ET: This story has been updated with a comment from CDC adviser Dr. Matthew Daley.

Updated 11/19/2021 at 3:33 p.m. ET: This story has been updated with additional information.