How are the US and China handling vaccine booster shots?

How are the US and China handling vaccine booster shots?
Vials with Pfizer-BioNTech, AstraZeneca, Sputnik V, and Moderna coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine labels are seen in this illustration picture taken March 19, 2021. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration
So far, there’s only one booster shot that’s been approved in the United States, and that’s the one developed by Pfizer-BioNTech.

What’s a booster shot, again?

  • When you get a vaccine like the ones for COVID-19, it doesn’t last forever. Over time, the usefulness of the vaccine goes down and the virus changes, which is why we have to keep getting our annual flu shots.
  • So far, studies and trials indicate that the Pfizer two-dose vaccine, for example, remains highly effective for at least six months. But at some point, it’s helpful for your body to have more protection so that it can stay strong against all forms the virus.
  • Think of the vaccine a little bit like laundry detergent and your body and system like clothes you wear. After the first wash, your clothes are nice, clean and ready for the day.
  • But then dirt and grease (a.k.a. the virus) gets on your clothes as the day progresses, and as your environment changes, your clothes get more worn out and dirtier. This then calls for another clean, and maybe a different laundry detergent in order to do the job.
  • Similarly, your antibody count and immunity wears off, and as it does, booster vaccines are recommended to get the most effective protection for your immune system.

Which vaccines have boosters approved so far?

  • So far, there’s only one booster shot that’s been approved in the United States, and that’s the one developed by Pfizer-BioNTech.
  • For the Pfizer-BioNTech booster, you have to be part of qualifying groups. This means people who are 65 years old and above, immunocompromised or have certain medical conditions or people who work in high-risk jobs or places.
  • For most of these groups, you also need to have had your second dose of the original vaccine at least six months before you can qualify for your third dose.
  • So far in the US, there haven’t been any other types of vaccines approved for boosters, but both Moderna Inc. and Johnson & Johnson are in the midst of getting approval.

Why haven’t the other American vaccines been approved for boosters?

  • Well, first off, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval process for these kinds of things is complicated and lengthy, which is essentially why it took so long to get vaccines to us in the first place.
  • For Moderna, an FDA advisory panel voted to recommend that Moderna boosters be allowed. And while the FDA hasn’t officially approved them just yet, with the advisory panel’s recommendation, they likely will.
  • For Johnson & Johnson, the advisory panel has also voted to recommend it, but FDA staff have reported shortcomings in the data provided by the company, so, this could take a little longer.

What about China?

  • Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that they recommended that people who got two shots of either of the Chinese vaccines (from Sinovac and Sinopharm) get a third shot of any vaccine.
  • Specifically, it recommended that anyone 60 and older who had gotten the vaccines should look to get a third.
  • And, on October 13, the Chinese state-owned media outlet Global Times reported that 13 different provinces and regions in China have already started administering booster shots to eligible people.
  • And in some Chinese regions, the third doses have actually been administered more liberally than the WHO recommended, with Xinjiang giving them to anyone 18 and above who also received their last vaccine dose at least six months ago.

What about Hong Kong?

  • So far, in Hong Kong, the government has been hesitant to introduce boosters to the general population, saying that they aren’t necessary just yet.
  • Hong Kong hasn’t had any major outbreaks of the virus in the last three months, and experts are saying that third doses won’t be needed until two to three months until the borders open again.
  • On Wednesday, however, the Secretary for the Civil Service, Patrick Nip Tak-kuen, who led the city’s vaccine drive, said that the government vaccine advisory committee would discuss the need for booster shots this Wednesday.
  • He added that their decision would be based on vaccine data from the WHO and overseas countries.
  • “Once the SAR have decided to administer a booster dose in the city, the community vaccination centers in the territory will make corresponding arrangements,” he said. He also added that there are enough vaccines for the population if booster shots are given the green light.

What are some of the criticisms against booster shots?

  • So, many of the wealthier nations have promised to send vaccines to poorer countries whose populations remain mostly unvaccinated.
  • “The situation that we see right now is absolutely unacceptable, because a large part of the world remains unvaccinated and this is a danger for all of us," said Mamta Murthi, the World Bank’s Vice President for Human Development.
  • The introduction of booster shots, though, places more strain on the already limited supply of vaccines.
  • The dilemma we remain in though, is that wealthier nations will prioritize their own countries first when distributing vaccines. However, if these poorer nations remain unvaccinated, it also opens up more possibilities for the emergence of variants.
  • Remember, the delta variant was first discovered in India, the gamma variant, Brazil, the beta variant, South Africa and the alpha variant, the United Kingdom.
  • “Rich countries hoard lifesaving vaccines, while poor nations wait for trickles," Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte told the United Nations (UN) in late September. “They now talk of booster shots, while developing countries consider half-doses just to get by. This is shocking beyond belief and must be condemned for what it is – a selfish act that can neither be justified rationally nor morally."

What’s next for me?

  • Well, your best bet is always to check with your local health care authorities to see what has been approved for your community.
  • But, if you’re 65 and above, in the US and got your Pfizer vaccine more than six months ago, you’re probably due for a booster.
  • If you happen to have gotten a different kind of vaccine in the US, keep your eyes open because your vaccine will likely have boosters soon.
  • In China and Hong Kong, the situation and timelines is a little less clear, but generally it seems that boosters will be slowly rolled out soon, so pay attention to the qualifications and eligibility.

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