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A health care worker prepares a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the CareNow Denver University urgent care center in Denver on Nov. 16, 2021.
A health care worker prepares a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the CareNow Denver University urgent care center in Denver on Nov. 16, 2021. (Daniel Brenner/Bloomberg)

Health officials in the United States and around the world have signaled in recent days that the definition of being fully vaccinated could be expanded to include booster shots, as the omicron coronavirus variant's spread alters the world's path to recovery.

Rising cases, including large spikes in cities including New York and Washington, have further fueled concerns about whether the current full vaccination regimen provides enough protection against the omicron variant.

President Joe Biden has for weeks urged all eligible Americans to get booster shots, as experts have warned that the new variant can evade the antibodies provided by the original doses of the vaccine. Getting boosted, early studies have shown, can raise the level of antibodies high enough to make it harder for the virus to take hold.

Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious-disease expert, said that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was open to changing the definition of fully vaccinated to include booster shots. The matter was "on the table," he said Friday on CNBC's "Squawk Box," though he said he was not sure "exactly when that will happen."

"There's no doubt — if you want to be optimally protected, you should get your booster," Fauci said.

The CDC says on its website that "everyone is still considered fully vaccinated" even without a booster shot if it has been two weeks since the second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine, or the first dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine.

Changing that definition could leave many people shut out of venues requiring full vaccination. Fewer than 18 percent of Americans have received a booster shot as of Saturday, according to CDC data. More than 61 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated under the current CDC definition.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, said last week on MSNBC that she was "working on" expanding the definition of being fully vaccinated to include booster shots in the state. "I believe that should happen, and we'll make it happen in New York," she said, while noting that her administration was seeking a way to accommodate people who were recently vaccinated and not yet eligible for a booster shot.

Booster requirements have already sprung up in some settings in the United States: New York University said that all eligible students and staff would be required to show proof of a booster shot by Jan. 18, and the NFL last week told teams it would require coaches and some staff to get booster shots. Starting Jan. 17, a booster shot for those who are eligible will be required for entry to the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Several countries have made the shift. Israel has begun requiring a booster shot to maintain a valid "Green Pass," the country's proof of vaccination, which is required for entry to restaurants and event venues. South Korea on Monday will begin a similar measure, requiring a booster shot within six months of the original regimen, and officials in other countries have indicated they could follow suit.

Singapore's health minister, Ong Ye Kung, said at a news conference Tuesday that a booster shot will be necessary to be considered fully vaccinated, a status required for test-free entry to spaces like restaurants, with officials there working to determine the period after which that status would lapse. In Austria, a negative coronavirus test will be required for international arrivals who have not received booster shots, Bloomberg reported.

Malaysia's health minister, Khairy Jamaluddin, said that people who had received the Sinovac coronavirus vaccine would be required to get a booster shot by February if they want to maintain full vaccination status. The Chinese-developed Sinovac vaccine has typically lower levels of efficacy against the virus, and the World Health Organization — which has criticized boosters and extra doses — supports third doses for recipients of Sinovac vaccines.

Scientists are still working to fully understand the risks of the omicron variant, and how it interacts with vaccines. Of the 43 omicron cases in the United States that the CDC had "full details" on as of Dec. 8, 14 of the people infected with the variant — about a third of the cases — had received a booster shot, according to a CDC presentation last week. Five of those 14 people had received their booster fewer than 14 days before they started experiencing symptoms.


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