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Is a COVID-19 Booster Shot In Your Future?

Kelsey Tyler

If you’re fully vaccinated against COVID-19, you’re likely soaking up the safety of the current moment. But you may also be wondering if your immunity will wear off and, if so, when?

In the past few weeks, researchers have made strides toward figuring that out. One recent study found protection against COVID from the vaccine could last at least a year, or possibly even longer, depending on the circumstances. But as the virus continues to mutate in different parts of the world, many experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, agree that vaccinated people will probably need booster shots at some point. Here’s what to know. 

What does current data tell us about immunity against the virus?

The general rule of thumb that is that immunity to pathogens (organisms that cause viruses and other types of disease) tends to decline over time, says Dr. Rishi Desai, Chief Medical Officer at Osmosis. But the time frame varies based on the person, strain of the pathogen and other uncontrollable factors.

Dr. Maria Blasi, an assistant professor at the Duke University School of Medicine who works within the Duke Human Vaccine Institute, says COVID-19 vaccination has been shown to be the most effective way of keeping this specific virus at bay. Even if you’ve recovered from COVID-19, getting the vaccine is still recommended. That’s because the best data available suggests antibodies from the vaccine decline quicker than those acquired through infection.

Right now, Dr. Blasi says, recent studies from Moderna and Pfizer show their vaccines offer strong protection for at least six months. Other results are also promising: In the new study, researchers analyzed how vaccination affected immunity in people who’d recovered from COVID-19. These patients exhibited high levels of protection up to 12 months after being vaccinated; researchers concluded that they should be able to fight off variants without needing booster shots. It’s unclear whether people who are fully vaccinated — but haven’t had COVID-19 — will mount similarly robust, long-lasting immune responses.

While Blasi says experts are optimistic that the vaccine alone confers long-lasting protection, the precise duration is still unclear.

So, why would you need a booster shot?

As COVID-19 cases surge in places like India, new variants are likely to emerge. So whether or not we see booster shots in the near future will depend a lot on how efficiently the pandemic is handled in countries where vaccination efforts have progressed slower than in the US, Blasi says. 

“If the virus continues to circulate,” she says, “new variants could emerge with reduced neutralization sensitivity and we will need a boost to enhance our protection.”

If you think of your antibody levels as an army, a booster shot increases your defense capabilities. That way, if you’re exposed to a new virus variant that might be able to fend off weaker armies of antibodies, you’ll remain protected. 

If booster shots do roll out, it’s still unclear whether they’ll be required every year, (like flu shots) or every 10 years (more like tetanus shots).

But with time, Desai says, experts will be able to determine “a cadence that makes sense as we define the immune threshold we need against the dominant strains of Covid-19.”

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