The Atlantic Daily: What to Make of the Latest Booster-Shot Recommendation

COVID-19 booster shots got a big thumbs-up from an FDA panel, but only for people over 65 or who are at high risk. How did things get so messy?

Syringes on a pink and orange gradient background
Andriy Onufriyenko / Getty; The Atlantic

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Boosters-for-all is looking more like boosters-for-some, for now.

Per the plan set out by the White House last month, next week was supposed to mark the rollout of booster shots for all Americans over 16, as long as they were eight months past their initial course of vaccines. But today an FDA advisory committee recommended only offering such shots to people over 65 and those with a high risk of severe disease who got their second Pfizer dose more than six months ago.

How did this whole thing get so messy? First, let’s look at the science. Then, the politics. Then, what it all means for you.

On the science

Today, the FDA’s panel of outside experts reviewed data on vaccine performance and debated what we should be asking of our shots, my colleague Katherine J. Wu explains.

The shots, Katie says, were designed to prevent severe disease—and are still doing just that. And so, since the White House announcement, researchers and laypeople have been debating whether boosters are really safe and effective for everyone, particularly considering the limited data available.

In the end, the scientists weren’t convinced. “I’m actually feeling more optimistic than I have in weeks, because everything I saw today … really followed the science,” Katie told me.

On the politics

In announcing a timeline before the FDA approved it, President Joe Biden “front-ran the scientists” and “put his thumb on the scale,” Peter Nicholas, who covers the White House, told me over the phone in advance of today’s panel vote. The administration’s initial announcement raised concerns among some public-health experts that the process had been politicized. Vaccinated Americans, the people who’d primarily benefit from these boosters, arguably form Biden’s base.

And now Biden is in a tough spot. “He has to follow the FDA’s guidance here,” Peter told me. “He can’t pressure the FDA—can’t start firing FDA officials, saying, ‘I have to have this booster program,’ or then he would really look like Donald Trump.”

On what comes next

The rollout looks restrained for the moment, but the FDA still needs to officially rule on the panel’s recommendation. And next week, the CDC will meet to discuss the issue

“I don’t want people to despair that they’ve lost something that was promised to them,” Katie told me. “The ringing endorsement from today’s meeting is that the vaccines are still doing their job incredibly well.”

If it’s any consolation, now might not be the best time for a booster anyway.

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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.