"We recently had an expert group meeting with scientists from around the world this included researchers, it included regulatory experts from different regulatory agencies, there was consensus that the data around the need for boosters is not conclusive," WHO Chief Scientist Dr. Soumya Swaminathan said at a media briefing Wednesday, Aug. 25.
"We also don't know about the safety of boosters. When we talk about vaccines, it's not just the efficacy. What happens when you give a third dose of an mRNA vaccine or any other kind of vaccine? These need to be studied as well, so before we launch into full-scale booster programs for the whole population there are a number of questions that need to be answered." (Related: Braveheart actor Michael Mitchell dies six days after getting third Pfizer "booster" shot for covid.)
But President Joe Biden didn't budge. Instead, he suggested on Friday, Aug. 27, that the government could offer COVID-19 vaccine boosters to most vaccinated adults sooner than eight months after a second dose.
Just nine days earlier, the president announced that his administration would begin offering boosters the week of Sept. 20 to adults who had received their second dose of COVID-19 vaccines at least eight months ago.
Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said earlier this year that boosters would not be recommended for the virus. With the COVID-19 vaccines appearing to fail against COVID-19 variants, it remains unclear what benefits an additional dose would provide.
More and more experts around the world are opposing the rollout of boosters. They are now recommending that the virus be allowed to circulate throughout the population, with precautions taken for vulnerable individuals.
"We really cannot do anything else but allow the virus to take its course in order for the population to achieve herd immunity," said Porolfur Gudnason, chief epidemiologist of Iceland's Directorate of Health. "We need to try to vaccinate and better protect those who are vulnerable, but let us tolerate the infection. It is not a priority now to vaccinate everyone with the third dose."
Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, told a parliamentary panel earlier this month that we don't have anything to stop COVID-19 transmissions. "I think we are in a situation where herd immunity is not a possibility and I suspect the virus will throw up a new variant that is even better at infecting vaccinated individuals," he said.
Infectious disease expert Paul Hunter told the same panel that vaccination would not bring about herd immunity.
"We need to start moving away from just reporting infections or just reporting positive cases admitted to hospital, to actually start reporting the number of people who are ill because of COVID," said Hunter, who also advises the WHO on the virus. "Otherwise we are going to be frightening ourselves with very high numbers that actually don't translate into disease burden."
Some are asking whether catching COVID-19 now is better than more vaccines. It has become a serious question that has implications for whether children should ever be vaccinated, and whether we use the virus or booster shots to top up immunity in adults. (Related: COVID-19 natural immunity vs vaccine-induced immunity guide.)
"There are clearly sources of information to suggest that once we start vaccination and we get more than 25 percent of the population vaccinated, we will allow one of the variants that's in the background to emerge because it's resistant to the vaccine," board-certified internist and cardiologist, Dr. Peter McCullough, said in a podcast earlier this month.
"Just like an antibiotic, once we get to a certain percentage of coverage with an antibiotic, we'll allow resistant bacteria to move forward."
Dr. Robert Malone, inventor of mRNA and DNA vaccines, recently tweeted: "I am reminded of the first rule of holes. When you are in one, stop digging." He described booster shot strategies as "based on hope rather than data."
Humans generally get a broader immune response after being infected with the virus than vaccination. "That means if you had a real humdinger of an infection, you may have better immunity to any new variants that pop up as you have immunity to more than just spike [protein]," said Riley.
It's easy to see why Big Pharma companies are pushing hard to get the green light for their boosters. Every extra dose means more money for them.
Adding booster doses to the equation would push the projected global spending on COVID-19 vaccines to a total of $157 billion through 2025, according to U.S. health data firm IQVIA Holdings. Pfizer has forecast sales of $26 billion from the vaccine in 2021 alone.
It could be a lot more as the projections were based on expectations that the booster doses would follow every two years following initial vaccinations.
IQVIA, which provides data and analytics for the healthcare industry, said it expects the first wave of COVID-19 vaccinations to reach about 70 percent of the world's population by the end of 2022.
Murray Aitken, a senior vice president at IQVIA, said that vaccine spending is expected to be highest this year at $54 billion with a global vaccination campaign underway. It is expected to decrease in succeeding years as tighter competition and vaccine volumes drive down prices.
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