The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Monday granted full approval of Pfizer-BioNTech's Covid-19 vaccine among adults. It's the first vaccine of its kind to receive the vote of confidence, and it may encourage more businesses to mandate employee vaccinations.
While the vaccine has been authorized for emergency use since mid-December, this new round of approvals means the FDA believes the benefits of the product outweigh the potential risks. Before offering its approval, the agency analyzed data from approximately 20,000 vaccine and 20,000 placebo recipients and found that the vaccine was 91 percent effective against severe illness and hospitalization arising from Covid-19 infection. Roughly 54 percent of Americans fully inoculated have received the Pfizer vaccine.
"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," said Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock in a press release. "Today's milestone puts us one step closer to altering the course of this pandemic in the U.S."
For businesses that have been thinking about putting vaccine requirements in place, but have yet to act, this move may push those plans ahead. While major companies such as Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Walmart, and Uber already require vaccinations for some or all of their staff -- particularly those who work in corporate offices -- some have neglected to extend the mandates to front-line workers. While United Airlines already mandated vaccinations among pilots and inflight crews, it recently announced that all employees would need to be vaccinated by late-October, or five week after the FDA approved the vaccine. The approval also led the Pentagon to require shots for 1.4 million active-duty service members, and New York City is now mandating that education staff get the jab.
Keep in mind though, that mandating the vaccine still comes with risk. If an employer mandates the vaccine and an employee has some sort of severe reaction to it, causing serious illness or injury, the employee could be entitled to workers' compensation benefits. Additionally, an employee can refuse to take the vaccine for medical or religious beliefs. There's also the tight labor market to consider. Employers looking to hire may be hesitant to mandate the vaccine, as doing so could deter potential employees from applying.
That headwind may peter out as employers, writ large, mandate vaccinations, says Jay Starkman, CEO of Engage PEO, an HR outsourcing and consulting company. "If every employer in the country, public or private, issued a vaccine mandate, then the labor shortage wouldn't be an issue."
Starkman also notes that the approval may provide employers some added legal protections. Some groups have filed lawsuits against institutions and municipalities enforcing a mandate, including a recent case in New York City brought by an independent restaurant group. However, if it goes to court, claimants will have less of an argument, as one vaccine is no longer just experimental. "I don't think that having the full approval changes the legal outcome," he says, "but it does eliminate one of the main legal arguments."