Are annual boosters the future of COVID-19 vaccines?

by Myra Malhotra (’26) | November 18, 2022

Art by Kiana Allard (’24)

In response to the devastating COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, scientists created a vaccine within 11 months of pandemic. To complete this task in record time, the government and private sector formed a partnership with the goal of significantly lowering hospitalization and mortality rates.

As variants of COVID-19 such as Omicron and BA.4 began to emerge, scientists combatted them with booster shots created to prevent fatalities. However, the immunity boost from these vaccines lasts only for a limited period of time. According to Dr. Peter Chin-Hong of the University of California, San Francisco, the booster offers maximum protection in the two to four months following injection and only “decent” protection for the four to six months after that.

So would an annual booster be enough to reduce the risk of contracting the disease? The short answer is that it might not be. The suggestion to get an annual COVID booster is simply modeled on the CDC’s recommendation of getting an annual flu shot, which renders vaccine scheduling more streamlined for the public.  

However, there are notable drawbacks to this system. Although the government currently recommends that the public receive an annual COVID booster called the bivalent booster, which targets the two major variants of Omicron and BA 4, the shot does not offer protection for any future mutations. 

Furthermore, there are widespread reservations among the public about receiving the bivalent booster shot indefinitely in coming years. For example, vaccine recipients have reported experiencing more severe symptoms as a result of the bivalent booster than with typical vaccines like the flu shot. This forces people to take increased time off work and school, ultimately discouraging productivity. There are also fears surrounding the unknown long-term effects of multiple COVID-19 vaccine shots, such as exhausting our body’s T cells. However, as infectious disease specialist Dr. Aaron Eli Glatt notes, “There isn’t a shred of evidence to support these ideas.”  

Regardless of the stigma against multiple vaccinations, the current bivalent booster can certainly be improved, and scientists are working on a pan-coronavirus vaccine that would offer advanced protection against future strains. Although progress has been slow as researchers attempt to track unpredictable mutations, the booster is currently the best option for ensuring public safety besides social distancing and wearing masks. 

Categories: Science

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