In January — long before the first jabs of covid-19 vaccine were even available to most Americans — scientists working under Dr. Anthony Fauci at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases were already thinking about potential booster shots.
A month later, they organized an international group of epidemiologists, virologists, and biostatisticians to track and sequence covid variants. They called the elite group SAVE or SARS-Cov-2 Variant Testing Pipeline. And by the end of March, the scientists at NIAID were experimenting with monkeys and reviewing early data from humans showing that booster shots provided a rapid increase in protective antibodies — even against dangerous variants.
Fauci, whose team has closely tracked research from Israel, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, said in an exclusive interview with KHN on Wednesday that “there’s very little doubt that the boosters will be beneficial.” But, he emphasized, the official process, which includes reviews by scientists at the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, needs to take place first.
“If they say, ‘We don’t think there’s enough data to do a booster,’ then so be it,” Fauci said. “I think that would be a mistake, to be honest with you.”
The support for an extra dose of covid vaccine clearly emerged, at least in part, from an NIH research dynamo, built by Fauci, that for months has been getting intricate real-time data about covid variants and how they respond to vaccine-produced immunity.
The FDA and CDC were seeing much of the same data, but as regulatory agencies, they were more cautious. The FDA, in particular, won’t rule on a product until the company making it submits extensive data. And its officials are gimlet-eyed reviewers of such studies.
On boosters, Americans have heard conflicting messages from various parts of the U.S. government. Yet, Fauci said, “there is less disagreement and conflicts than seem to get out into the tweetosphere.” He ticked off a number of prominent scientists in the field — including Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock and covid vaccine inventor Barney Graham — who were on board with his position. All but Graham are members of the White House covid task force.
Another task force member, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, said her agency was tracking vaccine effectiveness and “we’re starting to see some waning in terms of infections that foreshadows what we may be seeing soon in regard to hospitalizations and severe disease.” As to when so-called boosters should start, she told PBS NewsHour on Tuesday, “I’m not going to get ahead of the FDA’s process.”
Differences in the scientific community are likely to be voiced Friday when the FDA’s vaccine advisory board meets to review Pfizer-BioNTech’s request for approval of a third shot. Indeed, even the FDA’s official briefing paper before the meeting expressed skepticism. “Overall,” agency officials noted, “data indicate that currently US-licensed or authorized COVID-19 vaccines still afford protection against severe COVID-19 disease and death.” The agency also stated that it’s unclear whether an additional shot might increase the risk of myocarditis, which has been reported, particularly in young men, following the second Pfizer and Moderna shots.
Part of the disagreement arose because President Joe Biden had announced that Americans could get a booster as soon as Sept. 20, a date Fauci and colleagues had suggested to him as practical and optimal in one of their frequent meetings just days before — though he cautioned that boosters would need CDC and FDA approval.
Now it appears that that decision and the timing rest with the FDA, which is the normal procedure for new uses of vaccines or drugs. And Fauci said he respects that process — but he thinks it should come as quickly as possible. “If you’re doing it because you want to prevent people from getting sick, then the sooner you do it, the better,” Fauci said.
Researchers at the NIH typically focus on early-stage drug development, asking how a virus infects and testing ways to treat the infection. The job of reviewing and approving a drug or vaccine for public use is “just not how the NIH was set up. NIH does relatively little research on actual products,” said Diana Zuckerman, a former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton and president of the nonprofit National Center for Health Research in Washington, D.C.
“It’s no secret that FDA doesn’t have the disease experts in the way that the NIH does,” Zuckerman said. “And it’s no secret that the NIH doesn’t have the experts