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CDC director Walensky responds to criticism that COVID-19 booster is 'a luxury'

Dr. Rochelle Walensky told TODAY's Savannah Guthrie that there's "hope" a third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine would increase protection against infection.
/ Source: TODAY

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is speaking out regarding Wednesday's controversial announcement from top U.S. health officials that booster shots of the COVID-19 vaccines will be available to all Americans starting in September.

Critics have said the recommendation is a luxury akin to taking multiple life vests when others have none, as much of the world still hasn't had access to a first shot of any of the highly effective vaccines available in the U.S.

"I don't think that this is a choice in terms of we have to choose one or the other," Walensky said, defending the decision to TODAY's Savannah Guthrie on Thursday. "We're going to do both, and we have been doing both."

"Just over the last two months, we've delivered 50 million vaccines here in the United States and over 100 million vaccines across the world to 60 countries," she continued. "Before the end of this year, we anticipate that we will be giving about 100 million boosters here in the United States, and over 200 million vaccines around the world. This is not a choice, we plan to do both."

Walensky also shed light on the reasoning behind the third shot recommendation, referencing the highly contagious delta variant now dominant in the U.S. and the recent CDC research that suggested vaccinated people infected with it may be just as contagious as those who aren't vaccinated.

"We have seen now evidence that we've been looking at just over the last week or so that has demonstrated that the vaccine is starting to wane in its effectiveness against infection," she explained. "It's still holding up relatively well against severe disease and hospitalization, but we've also seen that we actually need more protection against the delta virus."

She added that data from other countries has indicated that the protection from the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines against severe infection may decrease after a while, so officials are anticipating this could happen in the U.S., and "we're planning for it so we can be ahead of this virus."

"We're starting to see waning in infection. We think that may result soon in waning in severe disease and outcome. We certainly don't want to see that here. That's why we're planning now to get ahead of it before that happens," she clarified.

That said, there's no data just yet that proves that a third shot of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines would increase protection against infection. But Walensky and her colleagues have "hope" that a third dose would decrease transmission, and thus infections as well.

"We do know that the higher levels of protection, certainly in the alpha variant (first identified in the U.K.), resulted in less transmission," she explained. "We are hopeful that the booster will not only protect you, give you a higher level of protection, not just against the delta vary but against a broad range of variants. It might also decrease the level of virus that you have and make it less transmissible."

So, is the protection from the third dose expected to wane, as well, since it's the same shot as the first two?

"I don't think we know that right now," Walensky answered. "There's numerous vaccines where we have two primes of a series and then a later booster, and we don't need a boost after that. The hepatitis B vaccine would be one example."

"We still obviously need to continue to follow the science. We need to see what happens with further variants. ... Right now we're taking this one step at a time. We know we need a boost now, and we will continue to follow the science, but I don't think it's a given that we will be doing this continuously."

She also shared a message for Americans who have not received any dose of the vaccine.

"While we are talking about boosters to the nearly 170 million Americans who are fully vaccinated, we are still actively speaking with the 100 million Americans who are not yet vaccinated and asking them to get the information that they need to get fully vaccinated," she stressed. "They remain at risk of severe disease, illness and death."

"When you are vaccinated with your first two doses of vaccine, you remain protected from severe disease and death for up to six, eight, perhaps longer months. This booster is going to ... optimize that protection to extend that protection longer."

On Wednesday, top U.S. health officials announced that the country was planning to start offering booster shots to Americans vaccinated with Pfizer or Moderna, regardless of whether they're immunocompromised, starting the third week in September. The experts cited evidence that the protection against infection decreases over time, which is especially important to combat as the delta variant spreads.

The goal of the booster is to make sure the country is as protected as possible heading into the winter. "You don't want to find yourself behind, playing catch up," Dr. Anthony Fauci said during a Wednesday briefing. "Better to stay ahead of it than chasing after it."

The current plan for boosters only include those who've received the two-shot Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. Health officials have said they anticipate boosters will also be necessary for those who received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine and expect more data in the coming weeks.