The United States is expanding access to COVID-19 booster jabs, as the country contends with rising numbers of coronavirus infections and growing concerns over the potential spread of the new Omicron variant.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Thursday that it was “strengthening its booster jab recommendations and encouraging everyone 16 and older” to receive an additional Pfizer-BioNTech shot.
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The announcement came shortly after the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted emergency authorisation for 16- and 17-year-olds to get a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine if it has been at least six months since their last jab.
“Although we don’t have all the answers on the Omicron variant, initial data suggests that COVID-19 boosters help broaden and strengthen the protection against Omicron and other variants,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a statement.
“We know that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, and I strongly encourage adolescents ages 16 and 17 to get their booster if they are at least 6 months post their initial Pfizer vaccination series.”
About 4.7 million 16- and 17-year-olds in the US are fully vaccinated, including more than 2.5 million teenagers who are six months past their second dose.
The move comes as US officials are increasingly worried that the Omicron variant could begin spreading rapidly over the holiday season and during the colder winter months, when people move indoors and gather in groups.
But the extra-contagious Delta variant is still causing nearly all COVID-19 infections in the US, with the CDC identifying fewer than 100 cases of Omicron in the country so far. Regions where activities have moved indoors for the winter have seen some of the biggest increases in new cases, which now average close to 120,000 each day.
Earlier this month, US President Joe Biden announced a series of measures aimed at combatting a resurgence of the virus, including wider access to booster jabs, free at-home coronavirus tests, and additional travel restrictions.
Complicating the decision to extend boosters to 16- and 17-year-olds is that the Pfizer-BioNTech shot – and a similar vaccine made by Moderna – have been linked to a rare side effect called myocarditis – a type of heart inflammation seen mostly in younger men and teen boys.
But the FDA said rising COVID-19 cases mean the benefits of boosters greatly outweighed the potential risk, especially as the coronavirus itself can cause more serious heart inflammation.
All American adults are currently eligible for booster shots of the three COVID-19 vaccines authorised in the US.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is the only option for anyone aged below 18 years, either for initial vaccination or for use as a booster. It is not yet clear if or when teens younger than 16 might need a third dose.
Vaccinations for children as young as five began last month, using special, low-dose Pfizer-BioNTech shots. By this week, about five million five- to 11-year-olds had gotten a first dose.
“The booster vaccination increases the level of immunity and dramatically improves protection against COVID-19 in all age groups studied so far,” BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin said in a statement.