Why it may be better to wait for COVID-19 booster

Waiting to get a COVID-19 booster shot may make it more effective.

That's what many infectious disease experts and even some vaccine manufacturers are saying as a federal immunization safety group began discussing the nation's booster shot plan Wednesday.

“It's not about boosters are unsafe, but optimal timing is the difference between long-lasting effectiveness and short-lived efficacy,” said Dr. Emily Landon, head of the University of Chicago's infectious disease prevention and control program. “One of the reasons we're talking about boosters now at all is because we smooshed together those first two shots to get everyone immunized.”

The discussion comes as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday authorized booster doses for Americans who are 65 and older, younger adults with underlying health conditions and those in jobs that put them at high risk for COVID-19. The ruling represents a drastically scaled-back version of the Biden administration's sweeping plan to give third doses to nearly all American adults to shore up their protection amid the spread of the highly contagious delta variant.

Illinois Department of Public Health officials report nearly 81,000 boosters have been administered to immunocompromised residents statewide already.

Even without widespread boosters, Illinois' seven-day case positivity rate has continued its steady decline, according to IDPH records. The rate is now below 3.2% and hasn't increased in more than a week.

But local health officials are still paying close attention to booster shot hearings conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

During the committee's first day Wednesday of a planned two-day hearing, committee member Dr. Jeff Duchin asked Pfizer officials if they were planning to change the current three-week interval between administration of the two doses. Duchin, a University of Washington professor of infectious diseases, noted wider intervals between doses usually lead to longer-lasting responses.

Pfizer officials acknowledged the proposal is under consideration.

“Being too early on a booster means you may need more shots later on,” Landon said.

Moderna's two-dose vaccine is given with a four-week interval and has shown less waning effectiveness than the Pfizer vaccine, Landon noted.

Federal health officials and regulators have been pumping the brakes on booster shot rollouts after a White House announcement several weeks ago that booster shots would be available for fully vaccinated individuals this month. A FDA committee voted to delay widespread booster rollout last week, instead suggesting boosters were best for those 65 and older or with severely or moderately compromised immune systems.

Now, the CDC committee will weigh the full FDA's decision on boosters, issued Wednesday evening, when the committee issues its expected guidance Thursday.

FDA acting commissioner Dr. Janet Woodcock said in a statement that the FDA authorization would allow for boosters in health care workers, teachers, grocery workers and those in homeless shelters or prisons.

“As we learn more about the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines, including the use of a booster dose, we will continue to evaluate the rapidly changing science and keep the public informed,” Woodcock said.

Under the FDA authorization, vaccinated Americans are eligible for a third dose six months after receiving their second Pfizer shot. That's different than the Biden proposal announced in August, which called for boosters after eight months.

Landon said the Biden administration was too hasty when announcing plans for widespread booster shots for most fully vaccinated Americans. But she notes uncertainty about the timing of a booster shot does not mean people shouldn't get the vaccine or that it's somehow unsafe.

“It would be shortsighted for a human being to focus on that, and it's counterproductive to take the narrative of uncertainty that surrounds everything in science and medicine and turn that into a reason to not believe in science,” she said.

Meanwhile, IDPH officials reported Wednesday that hospitals statewide were treating 2,028 COVID-19 patients.

Among those hospitalized, 494 are in intensive care, state records show.

Thirty-eight more COVID-19 deaths were also reported in Illinois, as well as 3,561 new cases of the disease diagnosed throughout the state.

That brings the state's death toll from COVID-19 to 24,699, while 1,605,320 cases have been diagnosed.

Additionally, IDPH officials reported 23,707 more doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered statewide, bringing the total number of doses administered to 14,377,808 since December 2020.

So far, 54.7% of the state's population is fully vaccinated, according to IDPH figures.

• The Associated Press contributed to this story.

FDA backs Pfizer COVID-19 boosters for seniors, high-risk

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