HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Biden Rushes on Boosters, CDC Panel Drags

U.S. public-health advisers are moving slowly toward considering the nationwide plan for booster doses of Covid-19 vaccines to ward off the fast-spreading delta variant, even as the Biden administration seeks a Sept. 20 kickoff.

While the booster plan laid out earlier this month had targeted individuals who received their last dose at least eight months ago, Biden said Friday that Americans may get a booster even faster: five months after completing the first regimen. The White House quickly clarified its stance, saying that the plan hasn’t changed, but Biden’s interest in a rapid rollout is clear.

But in the meantime, the schedule for experts on the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices to consider the timeline is slipping. Booster shots were supposed to be the main topic of discussion at an Aug. 24 meeting that was pushed to today. Now, that delayed meeting will mainly be occupied by consideration of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine that won FDA regulatory approval.

“We will hear substantially less on Monday about the booster doses,” William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University infectious disease expert and a non-voting ACIP member, said last week. “It’s really quite clear that the basis for the licensure of the vaccine will take up most of the time.”

The Biden administration has its hands full as it tries to control the spread of the delta variant and address vaccine hesitancy. But with less than a month until the proposed booster launch date, the administration still needs clearance from the Food and Drug Administration and a recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to proceed.

Vaccination experts continue to debate the value and impact of boosters. The CDC published three studies last week showing that mRNA vaccines continue to provide strong protection against hospitalization, even as efficacy at warding off infections has waned somewhat in the face of the highly infectious delta variant. Meanwhile, Johnson & Johnson, maker of the only U.S. authorized single-dose shot, reported last week that a booster dose raised levels of antibodies ninefold.

But important questions remain about what such findings mean for individual protection and for larger issues such as preventing transmission and the rise of new variants. “There’s so much data still missing on the booster issue,” Jesse Goodman, professor of medicine at Georgetown University and former FDA chief scientist, said. “In order to have a really informed discussion we need to have the data.” Fiona Rutherford has more.

Fauci Says Faster Booster Timeline Possible: Anthony Fauci said that the door is open to administering booster shots in the U.S. sooner than eight months. “We’re still planning on eight months. That was the calculation we made,” Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, said on NBC. However, “we’re totally open to any variation in that based on the data,” he said. Fauci also said he favors mandating shots for students in the U.S., where only kids ages 12 and up are eligible. Ian Fisher and Yueqi Yang have more.

Immune System’s Plan for Waning Antibodies: Antibodies against the coronavirus wane over time, but the immune system has a backup plan that doesn’t rely on boosters, according to a study by scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, where technology for mRNA vaccines was developed. They tracked 61 people over six months after immunization with the mRNA vaccines and found that although antibodies waned, the shots generated durable immune memory to ward off serious illnesses. Jason Gale has more.

More on the Pandemic

Biden Criticizes Beijing for Not Aiding Virus Report: Biden rebuked China for stonewalling a U.S. investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, as the U.S. reported it was unable to reach firm conclusions due to Beijing’s unwillingness to cooperate. China denied hindering the probe. “The world deserves answers,” Biden wrote in a statement after the White House released a summary of the analysis. “Responsible nations do not shirk these kinds of responsibilities.” Josh Wingrove, Chris Strohm and Claire Che have more.
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Hospitals in South Low on Oxygen Amid Covid-19, Ida: Hospitals in the Southeast are running low on oxygen, with the worst-hit left only 12 to 24 hours worth, Premier Inc., a hospital-supply purchasing group, said Saturday. The region is facing the landfall of Hurricane Ida after struggling for months with high numbers of Covid-19 hospitalizations. Premier has notified the White House, FEMA, and HHS about the scarcity of oxygen in the region, said Blair Childs, Premier’s senior vice president of public affairs. Read more from Shira Stein.

Sky’s the Limit for Surcharges on Unvaccinated: Employers weighing whether to follow Delta Air Lines’ lead and levy financial penalties on unvaccinated employees may charge an unlimited amount depending on the type of wellness plan they choose. The airline said last week it would impose a $200 monthly fee on health premiums for workers who haven’t gotten vaccinated by Nov. 1. And group health plans have flexibility to use wellness incentives to adjust premiums, one expert said. Sara Hansard has more.

Judge Blocks Florida Ban on School Mask Mandates: A judge blocked Florida from enforcing Gov. Ron DeSantis’ (R) ban on mask mandates in schools, clearing the way for educators to require face coverings in classrooms without the threat of retaliation by the state, such as pulling funding. Judge John Cooper issued the statewide verdict Friday after a four-day trial that included remarks from both health experts and parents in Florida’s Second Judicial Circuit in Tallahassee. Erik Larson has more.

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What Else to Know

Insurers Wary of Dental, Hearing Benefits for Medicare: The Biden administration’s proposal to add dental, vision and hearing benefits to traditional Medicare could end up shortchanging program beneficiaries enrolled in private Medicare Advantage plans, a new report finds. Unless Congress adjusts the Medicare Advantage “benchmark” base rate, the plans would receive 48% to 73% fewer rebate dollars, said an analysis funded by America’s Health Insurance Plans, a leading industry group. Tony Pugh has more.

  • Relatedly, House Democrats are careening toward an “ugly” intra-party collision over parts of Biden’s $4.1 trillion economic agenda, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) warned. The New York lawmaker predicted Friday that she and other progressives would come under increasing pressure to help pass a $550 billion public works bill—as a stand-alone legislation—and to drop their insistence on pairing it with a sweeping $3.5 trillion package of social, climate and health care-reform initiatives. Read more from Billy House.

Biden HHS Quadruples ACA Sign-Up Helpers: The Biden White House is quadrupling the number of Obamacare “navigators” who help connect the uninsured with marketplace coverage to 1,500, the Health and Human Services Department announced. Sixty organizations will receive $80 million to help train navigators for the 2022 health insurance plan year, the largest funding increase for this program. But lawmakers disagree over how effective those navigators really are. Read more from Shira Stein.

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To contact the reporter on this story: Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bgov.com; Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com; Michaela Ross at mross@bgov.com

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