CDC director defends unusual ruling on Pfizer’s Covid boosters: “It was a tight science call”

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Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who has been chosen to serve as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks at an event at the Queen Theater in Wilmington, Del. On Tuesday, December 8, 2020.

Susan Walsh | PA

Dr Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, insisted on Friday that she had not canceled a vaccine advisory committee by expanding agency approval of Pfizer’s Covid boosters to include a proposal rejected by the panel.

In an unusual move, Walensky broke with the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which on Thursday voted 9-6 against authorizing vaccines for people living in settings at high risk of transmission. Walensky adopted the panel’s other recommendations to distribute third injections to adults with underlying health conditions and to all people 65 years of age and older. She said the latest vote, which allows extra doses for teachers, healthcare workers and other essential employees, was a “close scientific call.”

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“I want to be very clear that I did not cancel an advisory committee,” Walensky said during a White House briefing on Covid on Friday. “I have listened to all of the deliberations of the FDA advisory committee and have listened intently to this exceptional group of scientists who have deliberately and very transparently for hours on end on some of these very difficult questions and where the science.”

Walensky’s directive aligns closely with the Food and Drug Administration’s decision on boosters on Wednesday. The agency also opposed the advice of its group of scientific advisers by allowing injections to a wider audience than that approved by its advisory committee on vaccines and related biologicals.

“It was a close scientific call,” Walensky said, noting the two-day long meeting and vigorous debate. “That was my call to make. If I had been in the room, I would have voted yes.”

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She sought to reassure public confidence by encouraging people to come back and listen to the committee’s deliberations. “We did it publicly, we did it transparently, and we did it with some of the best scientists in the country,” she added.

President Joe Biden, in a briefing Friday, said the CDC’s recommendation expands boosters to around 60 million Americans, including educators, healthcare workers and supermarket workers. The broader recall criteria better protect frontline workers and account for disparities in the administration of vaccines affecting people of color, Walensky said.

“I am also aware of the disproportionate impact this pandemic has had on racial and ethnic minority communities,” Walensky said. “Many of our frontline workers, essential workers and community workers come from communities that have already been hit the hardest. “

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She said suspending access to boosters for these groups would only worsen the inequalities in the pandemic that have caused black and Hispanic Covid patients to die at higher rates than whites.

More than 55% of the United States is fully vaccinated and more than 2.4 million Americans have received boosters since the agency cleared them for people with weakened immune systems on Aug. 13, according to the CDC.

Walensky said the agency will work to quickly assess Moderna and Johnson & Johnson’s recall data in the coming weeks.

“We intend to have many advisory committees at the CDC to review many upcoming decisions, including Moderna, J&J, as well as pediatric immunization,” Walensky said.

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