Top health officials plan narrower COVID-19 booster launch: source

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Top U.S. health officials have told the White House they would not have enough data for a broad COVID-19 booster rollout as President Joe Biden had anticipated, a source familiar with the discussions said on Friday.

A source familiar with the discussions told Reuters that there was only sufficient data to weigh a booster dose from Pfizer Inc. and German partner BioNTech SE.

Data submitted by rival Moderna Inc. fell short of what was needed, putting it several weeks behind the Sept 20 rollout the Biden administration has targeted, if regulators approve the use of boosters, the source said.

Earlier, the New York Times reported that the officials told the White House on Thursday to scale back a plan to offer the booster shots to the general public later this month.

Dr. Janet Woodcock, the acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told White House COVID coordinator Jeffrey Zientz their agencies may be able recommend boosters by late September only for certain recipients of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the source familiar with the discussions confirmed.

"These things happen and are part of the process — we have and will continue to follow the science. The booster plan and timeline was pulled together by the government doctors including Janet and Rochelle," the source said.

U.S. health officials had said in August that a third "booster" shot of the COVID-19 vaccine would be made widely available on Sept. 20 to Americans who received two doses of either the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccine at least eight months earlier. They cited data showing diminishing protection from the initial vaccinations as infections rise from the Delta variant.

Biden said the government expects to give out 100 million booster shots for free at around 80,000 locations nationwide.

The administration has described its booster plan as an effort to get ahead of the virus, based on concerns that breakthrough infections among people who are fully vaccinated.

The U.S. booster plan is dependent on the Food and Drug Administration determining that a third dose of the two-dose vaccines is safe and effective, and a favorable recommendation from CDC advisers.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein and Doina Chiacu; editing by Steve Orlofsky, Caroline Humer and David Gregorio)