COVID-19 Fact Check: COVID-19 booster shots not as important as getting everyone vaccinated first
Francis Collins said, “Nobody is saying you need a booster today. But boosters might very well be in our future at some point.'
Editor's Note: COVID-19 Fact Check is a series where we speak to doctors and ask them burning questions about everything related to COVID-19 - from treatments to vaccines and diagnostics.
Viruses change over time. They evolve and mutate, and this usually has no effect on the virus' properties. However, sometimes, during the mutation process, the World Health Organisation says a virus' properties might change. It may become more virulent by changing how rapidly it spreads or by turning more harmful. When this happens, treatments or vaccines that previously used to work against the virus are no longer effective.
As of last month, United Nations' Secretary-General Antonio Guterres declared the world at war against COVID-19.
He asked governments to apply wartime logic to the inequalities the vaccine response has raked up. He said, "Unless we act now, we face a situation in which rich countries vaccinate the majority of their people and open their economies, while the virus continues to cause deep suffering by circling and mutating in the poorest countries."
New SARS-CoV-2 variants are being identified all over the world. Recently, the WHO decided to change the way it names the variants as scientific names can be "difficult to say and recall" ,and people end up referring to the variants basis the country they originated in.
The viruses are segregated into two categories — Variants of Interest (VOIs) and Variants of Concern (VOCs). Currently, there are four VOCs and seven VOIs.
Booster shots and lasting immunity
People who have recovered from a COVID-19 infection and have naturally forming antibodies may have lasting protection, studies have shown, as the immune system retains a memory of the infection. Some studies show the immunity can last from anywhere between six to eight months, to up to a full year.
“Several months ago, our studies showed that natural infection induced a strong response, and this study now shows that the responses last,” Drs. Daniela Weiskopf, from the La Jolla Institute for Immunology, said. “We are hopeful that a similar pattern of responses lasting over time will also emerge for the vaccine-induced responses.”
However, there have been calls for a third (or 'booster') vaccine shot.
A booster shot is an additional dose of the vaccine that is periodically given to 'boost' the immune system.
Dr Tushar Tayal, Department of Internal Medicine, CK Birla Hospital, Gurgaon, told Firstpost, "Usually, boosters involve vaccinating people with an additional shot of the original vaccine. These increase an individual's immunity, serving to provide better protection from possible infections."
Two separate studies have shown people who were infected and immunized may not need booster shots at all. The studies also hypothesised that those who were not infected but were vaccinated, and those who did not produce a strong immune response, will need to get booster shots.
However, similar to the common cold-causing coronaviruses, there is a fear that with the virus rapidly mutating, booster shots will be inevitable.
"Booster shots are needed, as, after a while, immunity wears off. With more variants being detected, boosters will likely be required," Tayal added.
Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said in an interview with biologist Lee Hood at the Precision Medicine World Conference, “Nobody is saying you need a booster today. But boosters might very well be in our future at some point, and they might be here sooner if other variants pop up.”
Health authorities, on the other hand, are asking, "Why the rush?", as many countries have not yet finished even the first round of inoculation. They are also saying it is too early to know if we will even need booster shots as studies are not complete as yet. It hasn't even been long since a majority of the world's population was vaccinated, and hence, we cannot be sure pf how long the vaccines are effective for.
Dr Rohan Sequeira, Consultant General Medicine, Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre, told Firstpost, "We have just known COVID for over one year. It's too early to say how long the protection will last. But as and when the protection ends, I'm sure they'll come up with a booster dose."
Soumya Swaminathan, the World Health Organisation’s chief scientist, told Bloomberg Quint that calls for booster shots are premature. She also said, “We do not have the information that’s necessary to make the recommendation on whether or not a booster will be needed.”
Also, booster shot vaccinations are not as important as first getting everyone vaccinated to stop the spread and mutations. WHO's Chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has repeatedly called for rich countries, who are sitting on surplus vaccines, to share the extra doses with COVAX and other countries that desperately need them right now.
"This is a big help, but we need more, and we need them faster. Right now, the virus is moving faster than the global distribution of vaccines," said Ghebreyesus to the G7 nations. "More than 10 thousand people are dying every day... these communities need vaccines, and they need them now, not next year."
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