The Atlantic Daily: Why Wait for a Booster Shot?

Booster shots for Americans are likely on the way. With extremely low vaccination rates worldwide, is it too soon to get one?

A black and white photo of a woman wearing a mask pulling the COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe with gloved hands
Saul Martinez / Bloomberg / Getty

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Prepare your deltoid. The Biden administration is gearing up to recommend booster shots for most Americans eight months out from vaccination.

Below, we’re processing the news—and weighing whether it really makes sense to rush out boosters instead of letting the rest of the world go first.

We knew this was coming—sometime.

United States federal health officials are reportedly concerned about data coming out of Israel showing weakened efficacy in elderly people who got their second Pfizer shot in January or February.

Either way, boosters were probably inevitable, my colleague Katherine J. Wu reported back in June. It was just a matter of when.

“Your immune cells are like students preparing for an exam,” she reminded me over Slack. “And the virus is the Big Test.” Boosters help those cells refresh their knowledge or cram in new material.

Arguably, it’s still too soon.

Just 16 percent of people worldwide were fully vaccinated as of late last week. Earlier this month, the World Health Organization implored countries to pause boosters through the end of September at least.

Is it ethical for Americans to get another round of shots when so many people haven’t gotten any? And, putting ethics aside, is it most effective to prioritize boosters, given that the virus can mutate and thrive in pockets of the unvaccinated?

“I just don’t think it’s morally defensible right now,” our staff writer Ed Yong told me over the phone. “The extra benefit of getting this booster shot into fully vaccinated people in this country is going to be much lower than the benefits of vaccinating people who are still intensely vulnerable to Delta.”

Although a case can be made for giving boosters to health-care workers, older Americans, and immunocompromised people, he argued, blanket boosters feel like “the wrong strategy.”

Aaron E. Carroll, a professor of pediatrics, has a more practical approach to using up America’s extra doses: Though ideally shots would go elsewhere, he argues, in the absence of better international coordination, the best thing to do for everyone is to just use the shots on our kids.

For now: Sit tight.

Nothing changes today. As of this moment, the CDC is still not recommending COVID-19 booster shots for Americans, with the exception of certain immunocompromised people. But President Joe Biden is scheduled to speak on the topic as early as tomorrow.

Strictly speaking, there’s not much stopping you from driving to your local clinic and snagging one. By one account, an estimated 1 million people have reportedly already gotten unauthorized boosters.

Should you? We asked four experts about line-jumping, and they told us that it won’t hurt you, but probably isn’t worth it, at least for healthy Americans who already got a full course of an mRNA option.

And what about Johnson & Johnson vaccine recipients? Federal officials are waiting on the results of the company’s two-dose trials before giving further guidance.

The rest of the news in three sentences:

(1) The de facto Taliban leader arrived in Afghanistan as the fallout of the government’s collapse there continues. (2) No masks off on planes in 2021: The TSA will reportedly extend its mandate through the end of the year. (3) Haiti, still recovering from a 7.2 earthquake over the weekend, is now facing Tropical Storm Grace.

What to read if … you’re looking for practical advice on how to manage your risk in light of Delta:

Tonight’s Atlantic-approved activity:

Catch up on The White Lotus, a miniseries from HBO. Read our review of the show’s buzzy finale, which aired this week, or, if you’re just getting started, rewind back to our preview from July.

A break from the news:

A Tennessee teacher taught his students about white privilege and racism—including by assigning an Atlantic article by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Then he lost his job.

Every weekday evening, our editors guide you through the biggest stories of the day, help you discover new ideas, and surprise you with moments of delight. Subscribe to get this delivered to your inbox.