The Food and Drug Administration on Monday granted full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and older, making it the first to move beyond emergency use status in the United States.
The decision will set off a cascade of vaccine requirements by hospitals, colleges, corporations and other organizations. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will be sending guidelines to the country’s 1.4 million active duty service members mandating that they be vaccinated, the Pentagon announced Monday.
United Airlines recently announced that its employees will be required to show proof of vaccination within five weeks of regulatory approval.
Oregon has adopted a similar requirement for all state workers, as have a host of universities in states from Louisiana to Minnesota. In New York, the FDA’s approval also brought into force a requirement announced in May that all students attending in-person classes at State University of New York and City University of New York schools be vaccinated.
The approval comes as the nation’s fight against the pandemic has intensified again, with the highly infectious delta variant dramatically slowing the progress that the country had made over the first half of the year. In a nine-minute speech Monday afternoon, President Joe Biden said he hopes the development will motivate many of the roughly 85 million unvaccinated Americans who are eligible for shots to get them. He told corporate, state and local leaders: “Do what I did last month. Require your employees to get vaccinated or face strict requirements” such as frequent testing.
He cast Pfizer’s approval as a sign of the overall progress he said his administration is making against the pandemic. While he acknowledged that the death rate, now averaging about 1,000 new deaths a day, has been climbing, he said the toll is still far lower what it was last winter because the vast majority of elderly people are vaccinated.
Biden also tried to reassure anxious parents about the growing numbers of children who are getting infected with the delta variant, saying that severe COVID cases among children are still “very, very rare.” He promised to soon address “how we get our kids back to school safely.”
“While millions of people have already safely received COVID-19 vaccines, we recognize that for some, the FDA approval of a vaccine may now instill additional confidence to get vaccinated,” Dr. Janet Woodcock, the acting FDA commissioner, said in a statement. “Today’s milestone puts us one step closer to altering the course of this pandemic in the U.S.”
Pfizer said it presented the FDA with data from 44,000 clinical trial participants in United States, the European Union, Turkey, South Africa and South America. The agency said the data showed the vaccine was 91% effective in preventing disease — a slight drop from the 95% efficacy rate that the data showed when the FDA decided to authorize the vaccine for emergency use in December. Pfizer said the decrease reflected the fact that researchers had more time to catch people who became infected.
A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which has been tracking public attitudes during the pandemic, found that 3 of every 10 unvaccinated people said that they would be more likely to get vaccinated with a shot that had been fully approved.
But the pollsters and other experts warned that percentage could be exaggerated.“I think that is a vanishingly small number of people in real life, ” said Alison Buttenheim, an associate professor of nursing at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on vaccine hesitancy.
More important, Buttenheim said, would be the effect of requirements.
“Mandates simplify things for people,” she said.
The regulatory action gives doctors a measure of leeway to prescribe a third shot of the Pfizer vaccine to patients, but federal officials strongly discouraged people from seeking extra shots until regulators decide they are safe and effective. Pending regulatory clearance, the federal government plans to start offering booster shots for adults next month.
The vaccine will continue to be authorized for emergency use for children ages 12-15 while Pfizer collects the necessary data required for full approval. A decision on whether to authorize the vaccine for children younger than 12 could be at least several months away, and Woodcock said such children should not be given any COVID-19 vaccine at this point because regulators have not collected enough data yet from clinical trials on safety or the proper dosage.
So far, more than 92 million Americans — 54% of those fully inoculated — have gotten Pfizer shots. Most of the rest received Moderna’s vaccine.
Dr. Peter Marks, the FDA’s top vaccine regulator, said the Pfizer vaccine’s licensure followed a rigorous review of hundreds of thousands of pages of data and included inspections of the factories where the vaccine is produced. The agency, which has been under pressure to work ever faster on vaccine decisions, finished its review 97 days after Pfizer filed the required data — or in about two-fifths the normal time for such an evaluation, he said.
“The public and medical community can be confident that although we approved this vaccine expeditiously, it was fully in keeping with our existing high standards for vaccines in the U.S.,” he said.
Marks said that federal health agencies would continue to monitor the vaccine’s safety and that the FDA would require Pfizer to continue to study the risks of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, and pericarditis, an inflammation of the membrane surrounding the heart, including the long-term outcomes for recipients. The FDA in June attached warnings to the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines noting possible increased risk of those conditions after the second dose.
Although Pfizer is now free to market the drug under the name Comirnaty, the company said only the federal government will distribute doses in the United States.
Health experts and state officials welcomed the development. With the delta variant driving up caseloads across the country, “full approval could not come at a more important time,” said Dr. Richard Besser, president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and former acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He called on schools and businesses to require vaccination before allowing people to congregate indoors.
Less than two months after it appeared to have curbed the spread of the virus, the U.S. is now averaging around 150,000 new cases a day and more than 90,000 hospitalized COVID-19 patients.
Vaccination rates have also been rising in recent weeks, likely in part because of rising fears about the virus. Providers were administering about 837,000 shots a day. Biden said the most recent seven-day total was the highest since early July. He said more people in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi — all states that are being ravaged by the delta variant — got their first shots in the past month than in the previous two months combined.
Some experts have estimated that full approval might convince just 5% of those who are unvaccinated to get shots. Even if that’s so, “that’s still a huge slice of people,” Dr. Thomas Dobbs, the chief health officer for Mississippi. He said licensure will help “shake loose this false assertion that the vaccines are an ‘experimental’ thing.”
Marks, the vaccine regulator, cited a series of other myths about the vaccines as a major impediment to fighting the pandemic, including false claims that the shots would cause infertility, foster rather than prevent COVID disease or had led to thousands of deaths.
“Let me be clear. These claims are simply not true,” he said.
The FDA is in the midst of a decision-making marathon related to coronavirus vaccines. The next major one looming for regulators is whether to authorize booster shots. The Biden administration said last week it plans to offer third shots to adults who got the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines eight months after their second injection, starting Sept. 20. Third shots are already authorized for some people with immune deficiencies, but the risk-benefit calculus is different for the general population.
Federal health officials said that both Pfizer-BioNTech’s and Moderna’s vaccines, which rely on similar technology, wane in potency over time. That trend, they said, is converging with the rise of the particularly dangerous delta variant, making those who completed their vaccinations at the start of the year increasingly vulnerable to infection.
Some health experts have challenged the decision to recommend booster shots as premature, saying the data shows that the vaccines are holding up well against severe disease and hospitalization, including against the delta variant. Boosters would only be warranted if the vaccines were failing to prevent hospitalizations with COVID-19, some of those experts have said.
Regulators are still reviewing Moderna’s application for full approval of its vaccine. That decision could take several weeks. Johnson & Johnson is expected to apply soon for full approval.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.