WASHINGTON -- With a stockpile of at least 100 million doses at the ready, Biden administration officials are developing a plan to start offering coronavirus booster shots to some Americans as early as this fall, even as researchers continue to hotly debate whether extra shots are needed, according to people familiar with the effort.
The first boosters are likely to go to nursing-home residents and health care workers, followed by other elderly people who were near the front of the line when vaccinations began late last year. Officials envision giving people the same vaccine they originally received. They have discussed starting the effort in October but have not settled on a timetable.
While many outside experts argue that there is no proof yet that the vaccines' protection against severe disease and hospitalization is waning in the U.S., administration officials say they cannot afford to put off figuring out the logistics of providing boosters to millions of people until that tipping point is reached. The spotty nature of the nation's disease-reporting network makes the question of timing even trickier.
Another wave of the coronavirus is gripping the nation, reversing much of the progress the administration had made. Hospitals in states like Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi are again swamped with patients, the vast majority of them unvaccinated.
Among other indicators, officials say, the administration is carefully watching Israel, where some data suggests an uptick in severe disease among older adults who received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine early in that nation's campaign, according to people who have reviewed it. Some officials are concerned that even if a decline in protection merely results in mild or asymptomatic infections, those infected people could still spread the virus and prolong the pandemic.
Any booster policy decision is fraught, officials said, because the administration does not want to undermine public confidence in what have proved to be powerfully effective vaccines. Nor does it want to overvaccinate Americans when many other countries have yet to even begin vaccination campaigns in earnest, increasing the threat of dangerous new variants that could spread to the U.S. and evade the vaccines.
The World Health Organization has called for a moratorium on booster shots until the end of September, saying available doses should be used to help countries that are far behind in vaccinations.
Regulators for the European Union said this month that there was not yet enough data to justify boosters. Germany and France nevertheless have announced plans to start giving booster shots to the older adults and other vulnerable populations next month.
Israel, which is already administering booster shots to people older than 60, announced Thursday that it would offer them to those older than 50 as well. Britain so far is holding off but already has a detailed plan for distributing boosters to people 50 and older.
More than 1 million Americans already have managed to get booster shots.
They represent less than 1% of those who have been fully vaccinated. But more people could try to follow suit once regulators fully approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, a move that is expected by early next month. Even though the regimen calls for two shots, doctors would be able to prescribe a third for patients at that point without fear of violating Food and Drug Administration rules.
Late last week, the FDA authorized third doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for certain people with weakened immune systems, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended them. Authorities decided those people, who make up less than 3% of Americans, merited extra shots because many fail to respond to the standard dosage.
Administration officials continued to insist until recently that boosters remained unnecessary for the general population for now. Determining at what point that changes is difficult because administration experts lack up-to-date data on so-called breakthrough infections in vaccinated people, including their prevalence, when such people were vaccinated and which vaccine they received.
Instead, officials are analyzing a complex array of information from a range of sources, including from vaccine manufacturers Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, which has an agreement with the Israeli government to review its data. Other sources of information include a variety of foreign governments and the CDC, which collects data from states and hospitals. All of that data is subject to interpretation and can be marshaled to support arguments for or against boosters.
Some federal officials cast the booster discussions as contingency planning; others suggested boosters for the general population were extremely likely, and the questions were how to give it to them and when.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a key White House adviser, said Thursday that officials were busy planning because "sooner or later, you will need a booster."