Biden says select adults are eligible for booster vaccine on September 20

Orders vaccine mandate for federally-funded nursing home staff serving patients on Medicare or Medicaid

US President Joe Biden removes his face mask as he arrives to deliver remarks on the Covid response and vaccination program in the White House in Washington, US, on August 18, 2021. Reuters
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President Joe Biden said the US plans to make Covid-19 vaccine booster shots widely available starting on September 20 as infections rise from the coronavirus Delta variant, citing data indicating diminishing protection from the vaccines over time.

“The threat of the Delta virus remains real but we are prepared,” Mr Biden said Wednesday at the White House. “This is no time to let our guard down.”

Vaccinations have been widely available in the US, unlike many other countries, but the highly infectious Delta variant has caused what experts describe as a pandemic of the unvaccinated as a significant number of people choose not to get inoculated.

The US leads the world in reported Covid-19 cases and deaths. Daily US cases soared from fewer than 10,000 in early July to more than 150,000 in August as the Delta variant took hold. The new cases include some vaccinated people, though they are far less likely to experience severe disease or death than the unvaccinated.

“We have a responsibility to give the maximum amount of protection,” Mr Biden said.

According to CDC data, more than 72 per cent of Americans 18 and older have received at least one vaccine dose and nearly 62 per cent are fully vaccinated. Of the total population, the CDC said 59.9 per cent have received at least one dose and 50.9 per cent are fully vaccinated.

The US will offer a third shot to Americans who completed their initial inoculation in two-dose vaccines made by Moderna and by Pfizer-BioNTech at least eight months ago, the Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement earlier on Wednesday.

Initial booster doses will be given to Americans who received the two-dose vaccines, but US health officials said they anticipate that people who received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot, the other Covid-19 vaccine approved in the US, will also need boosters. The US did not begin administering J&J shots until March.

Priority for the booster shots will initially focus upon healthcare workers, nursing home residents and the elderly, who were among the first groups to be vaccinated in late 2020 and early 2021, top US health officials said in a joint statement.

"It’s the best way to protect ourselves from new variants that may arise," Mr Biden told reporters about the extra dose.

"It will make you safer and for longer. It will help end this pandemic faster."

The US government expects to give out 100 million booster shots for free at around 80,000 locations nationwide, Mr Biden said.

Mr Biden ordered that nursing homes mandate vaccinations in staff during his speech, "If you work in a nursing home and serve people on Medicare or Medicaid, you will also be required to get vaccinated."

He also said he was directing the education secretary to take steps such as exercising oversight authorities and taking legal action to counter governors who have prevented schools from requiring children to wear masks.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis are working to block local school districts from imposing mask mandates in their states. Several districts have taken the state to court so that they can require children wear masks in class.

There is mounting evidence that protection from the vaccines wanes after six or more months, particularly in older people with underlying health conditions. The officials cited this in their decision on boosters, but stressed that the US-approved shots have proven “remarkably effective” in reducing the risk of severe disease, hospital admittances and deaths.

The officials included President Joe Biden's chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci as well as the heads of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institutes of Health.

“The available data make very clear that protection against Sars-CoV-2 infection begins to decrease over time … and in association with the dominance of the Delta variant, we are starting to see evidence of reduced protection against mild and moderate disease,” the officials said.

“We conclude that a booster shot will be needed to maximise vaccine-induced protection and prolong its durability,” they added.

US officials previously authorised a third dose of the vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna for people with weak immune systems.

In recent weeks, several other countries also have decided to offer booster shots to older adults as well as people with weak immune systems, including Israel, France and Germany.

A study by an Israeli healthcare provider released on Wednesday found that a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot is 86 per cent effective in people over age 60.

It followed another Israeli study released this week that showed evidence of waning immunity from Covid-19 vaccines in the months after inoculation, raising the risk of serious infection among the elderly and people with compromised immune systems.

Netanyahu receives third Covid-19 shot as booster offered to over-60s

Netanyahu receives third Covid-19 shot as booster offered to over-60s

“The surprise factor is the vaccine vulnerability — people who are vaccinated became vulnerable much earlier than expected,” Dr Eric Topol, a cardiologist and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California, said about the study.

“The whole dynamic of boosters is being rewritten,” Dr Topol added.

The US announcement goes against guidance from the World Health Organisation (WHO), whose chief scientist said on Wednesday current data does not indicate the need for booster shots. A WHO adviser said vaccine doses should first go to people in poorer countries who have not yet received an initial inoculation.

“There’s some world leaders who say America shouldn’t get a third shot until other countries got their first shot--I disagree,” Mr Biden said.

“We can take care of America and help the world at the same time.”

The decision represented a shift from the optimism of US health authorities in May in curbing the pandemic when Mr Biden set a goal to vaccinate 70 per cent of American adults with at least one dose by July 4. That goal was achieved about a month late.

The US booster plan is dependent on the FDA determining that a third dose of the two-dose vaccines is safe and effective, and a favourable recommendation from CDC advisers.

Updated: August 19, 2021, 12:00 AM