In 2022, students at North American universities with third-dose COVID-19 vaccine mandates risk disenrolment if unvaccinated. To assess the appropriateness of booster mandates in this age group, we combine empirical risk-benefit assessment and ethical analysis.
To prevent one COVID-19 hospitalisation over a 6-month period, we estimate that 31 207–42 836 young adults aged 18–29 years must receive a third mRNA vaccine.
Booster mandates in young adults are expected to cause a net harm: per COVID-19 hospitalisation prevented, we anticipate at least 18.5 serious adverse events from mRNA vaccines, including 1.5–4.6 booster-associated myopericarditis cases in males (typically requiring hospitalisation).
We also anticipate 1430–4626 cases of grade ≥3 reactogenicity interfering with daily activities (although typically not requiring hospitalisation).
University booster mandates are unethical because they:
(1) are not based on an updated (Omicron era) stratified risk-benefit assessment for this age group;
(2) may result in a net harm to healthy young adults;
(3) are not proportionate: expected harms are not outweighed by public health benefits given modest and transient effectiveness of vaccines against transmission;
(4) violate the reciprocity principle because serious vaccine-related harms are not reliably compensated due to gaps in vaccine injury schemes; and
(5) may result in wider social harms.
We consider counterarguments including efforts to increase safety on campus but find these are fraught with limitations and little scientific support. Finally, we discuss the policy relevance of our analysis for primary series COVID-19 vaccine mandates.