U.S. regulators on Tuesday authorized another COVID-19 booster for people age 50 and older, a step to offer extra protection for the most vulnerable in case the coronavirus rebounds.
The Food and Drug Administration’s decision opens a fourth dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines to those people at least four months after their previous booster.
Until now, the FDA had cleared fourth doses only for people 12 and older who have severely weakened immune systems. The agency said this especially fragile group also can get an additional booster, a fifth shot.
The latest expansion, regardless of people’s health, allows an extra shot to millions more Americans — and the question is whether everyone who’s eligible should rush out and get it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to weigh in.
Pfizer had asked the FDA to clear a fourth shot for people 65 and older, while Moderna requested another dose for all adults “to provide flexibility” for the government to decide who really needs one.
There’s limited evidence to tell how much benefit another booster could offer right now. FDA made the decision without input from its independent panel of experts that has wrestled with how much data is required to expand shots.
None of the COVID-19 vaccines are as strong against the omicron mutant as they were against earlier versions of the virus. Also, protection against milder infections naturally wanes over time. But the immune system builds multiple layers of defense and the type that prevents severe illness and death is holding up.
During the U.S. omicron wave, two doses were nearly 80% effective against needing a ventilator or death — and a booster pushed that protection to 94%, the CDC recently reported. Vaccine effectiveness was lowest — 74% — in immune-compromised people, the vast majority of whom hadn’t gotten a third dose.
The newest booster expansion may not be the last: Next week, the government will hold a public meeting to debate if everyone eventually needs a fourth dose, possibly in the fall, of the original vaccine or an updated shot.