US FDA to allow 'mix and match' approach for Covid-19 vaccine booster shots

People familiar with the FDA's planning said the government would not recommend one shot over another, and it might note that using the same vaccine as a booster when possible is preferable. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is planning to allow Americans to receive a different Covid-19 vaccine as a booster than the one they initially received, a move that could reduce the appeal of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and provide flexibility to doctors and other vaccinators.

The government would not recommend one shot over another, and it might note that using the same vaccine as a booster when possible is preferable, people familiar with the agency's planning said. But vaccine providers could use their discretion to offer a different brand, a freedom that state health officials have been requesting for weeks.

The approach was foreshadowed last Friday (Oct 15), when researchers presented the findings of a federally funded "mix and match" study to an expert committee that advises the FDA.

The study found that recipients of Johnson & Johnson's single-dose shot who received a Moderna booster saw their antibody levels rise 76 times in 15 days, compared with only a fourfold increase after an extra dose of Johnson & Johnson.

Federal regulators this week are aiming to greatly expand the number of Americans eligible for booster shots. The FDA is expected to authorise boosters of the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines by Wednesday evening; it could allow the mix-and-match approach by then. The agency last month authorised booster shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, to be given at least six months after the second dose.

An advisory committee of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will take up the booster issue on Thursday; the agency will then issue its own recommendations. By the end of the week, tens of millions more Americans could be eligible for extra shots.

The study presented to the FDA's advisory panel last week, conducted by the National Institutes of Health, suggested that Johnson & Johnson recipients might benefit most from a booster shot of the Moderna vaccine. A shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine also raised the antibody levels of Johnson & Johnson recipients more than Johnson & Johnson did, the study found, although not as much as Moderna did.

The NIH researchers tested a full dose of Moderna's vaccine for a booster shot, but regulators are also considering whether to authorise a half dose.

A shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine also raised the antibody levels of Johnson & Johnson recipients more than Johnson & Johnson did, the study found, although not as much as Moderna did.

Experts emphasised last week that the new data was based on small groups of volunteers and short-term findings. Only antibody levels - one measure of the immune response - were calculated as part of the preliminary data, not the levels of immune cells primed to attack the coronavirus, which scientists say are also an important measure of a vaccine's success.

The study's researchers warned against using the findings to conclude that any one combination of vaccines was better. The study "was not powered or designed to compare between groups", said Dr Kirsten Lyke, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, who presented the data.

While the research on mixing and matching doses is somewhat thin, even some scientists who have strongly criticised the Joe Biden administration's booster policy said that providers should be given a measure of discretion as the campaign ramps up.

"If you look at the data, it certainly looks like it might be better," Dr Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Centre at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said of Moderna or Pfizer boosters for Johnson & Johnson recipients. "I think we should move quickly on this because it's already happening."

At the meeting on Friday of the FDA's expert panel, of which Dr Offit is a member, top CDC officials argued that providers needed latitude to offer different vaccines as boosters because patients might have had adverse reactions after their initial shots or presented other new concerns. Providers also might not have access to a vaccine a patient initially received, they said.

The federal government will cover the cost of a different vaccine as a booster only if the FDA authorises the approach, officials said.

"I'd like to reiterate how important it is from a programmatic perspective to have a little bit of flexibility," Dr Melinda Wharton, a top vaccine official at the CDC, told the FDA panel.

Dr Amanda Cohn, another high-ranking CDC official, said: "From a public health perspective, there is a clear need in some situations for individuals to receive a different vaccine."

Both Moderna and Pfizer require two initial doses, separated by about a month. Regulators are expected to follow the same approach they took with Pfizer's vaccine and authorise a booster of Moderna's vaccine about six months after the second shot. Johnson & Johnson is headed for a booster shot of its vaccine at least two months after the first dose.

State health officials have been arguing for weeks that recipients of booster shots should not be strictly bound to the vaccine they initially received, for reasons such as supply, patient choice and ease of administration.

"The No. 1 thing I heard from state health secretaries was the need for permissive language around a mix-and-match approach," said Dr Nirav D. Shah, Maine's top health official and the president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

It remains unclear what dosage of Moderna's vaccine might be authorised for use as a booster for recipients of other vaccines. For those who initially received Moderna, regulators are expected to authorise a half-dose as a booster.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious disease expert, publicly suggested on Sunday that the government was headed toward granting greater leeway, at least for Johnson & Johnson recipients.

"I believe there's going to be a degree of flexibility of what a person who got the J&J originally can do, either with J&J or with the mix-and-match from other products," he said on Fox News Sunday.

Just over 15 million people have been fully vaccinated with Johnson & Johnson's vaccine, compared with 69.5 million for Moderna's and 104.5 million with Pfizer-BioNTech's.

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