The FDA just authorized a second booster shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna coronavirus vaccines for people over 50 and the CDC has approved it. A second booster has already been approved in the U.K., Sweden, Israel and Denmark.
Why do we need a second booster only months after the first booster, which came only months after most of us received two jabs of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna mRNA vaccines? Are the vaccines not very good? After all, we get small pox or measles shots that last a lifetime. Others, like the vax for tetanus, last for ~10 years. Why can’t we get a more durable coronavirus vaccine?
The answer is complicated and largely rooted in both viral biology and vaccine immunology.
Viral biology. The simplest answer is that viral mutation can change the molecules the vaccine immune response is trained to recognize, causing vax immunity to decay as viruses mutate. The coronavirus vaccines are directed against the spike protein expressed on the original CoV-2 that first appeared in Wuhan, but that ancestral bug has spawned mutated progeny that look a bit different to the immune system. In other words, viral variants created by “antigenic drift” become less recognizable to the immune system. That is why the vaccines are somewhat less effective against the Omicron variant that carries numerous point mutations in its spike protein. The current vaccines are still pretty effective against current viral variants, but continued antigenic drift along with the selection of variants that can better avoid vaccine immunity will likely require new vaccines in the future.
So, why do we need new flu vaccines every year, and need frequent CoV-2 vaccines, but we don’t similarly need new measles vaccines? Measles, mumps, flu, COVID, and other diseases are caused by viruses, but the different viruses behave quite differently. Viruses carry relatively little genetic material that tends to mutate as they replicate and spread. Some viruses, like flu, also have a “segmented genome” meaning that their genetic material is carried on several separate genetic molecules, making it easy to shuffle their genomes like a deck of cards when different flu strains infect the same animal. Other pathogens carry all their genetic material on a single DNA or RNA molecule making such gene shuffling between strains less likely, but it still happens. Also, the mutation rate of a pathogen’s genome is a function of its replication rate; hence, each time a bug copies its genome, small random errors are inserted into its genetic code. The more the bug replicates, the more mutations will accumulate in its genome and the faster replicating bugs will more rapidly create new variants. Thus, the measles virus is pretty stable since it does not replicate as much as a coronavirus or a flu virus, so it is not surprising that vaccine immunity to measles is much more durable. Smallpox and polioviruses also have relatively low replication rates and vaccine immunity to them also is long-lasting. In contrast, flu and coronaviruses replicate rapidly and pass back and forth between humans and animals. This means that they mutate rapidly and need frequent vaccine updates.
Other vaccines, such as the TB vax, target bacteria not viruses. Bacteria carry larger genomes that are not so changeable, so anti-bacteria vaccines also are pretty long-lasting compared to many anti-viral vaccines.
Yet other vaccines, such as those against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis do not even target the pathogen at all, but target toxins produced by the bugs. Vaccinated people produce antibodies that neutralize the toxins and this prevents disease. These vaccines do not forestall infection, they simply prevent the ill effects of the pathogen. Therefore, for these toxoid vaccines, there is no immunological selective pressure to select pathogen variants that can avoid vax immunity. Vaccines against these toxins also tend to be among the longest-lived vaccines.
Vaccine immunology. Vaccines aim to mimic natural immunity we develop to infection with pathogens. By exposing the body to harmless imitations of a pathogen, vaccines create an immune response and immune memory against pathogens, while avoiding the disease caused by the bugs. When an infection does occur in a vaccinated person, a rapid and robust immune response is mounted, first with B-cell generated antibodies that latch onto the invaders and prevent them from spreading and causing illness. Then T-cells secret cytokines that further ramp up the inflammatory response, and other T cells attack pathogen-infected cells. As explained earlier in these pages, antibody responses tend to linger only a few weeks to a few months and then gradually decay. This is good; otherwise your blood serum would be like syrup from all the antibodies against all foreign things you encountered over your lifetime. While antibodies circulating in your blood are good for quickly attacking infections shortly after infection, they do not confer long-term immunity. What confers long-term protection is what are called memory cells. These are a relatively few T and B cells that go dormant after fighting an initial infection or responding to a vaccine, but hang around awaiting a new infection to signal them to quickly roar back to life and mount a vigorous response against their cognate pathogen. This secondary response to a previously seen pathogen is much faster and usually nips the bug in the bud so you don’t even know you were infected.
When we hear that CoV-2 immunity decays only a few months after vaccination, the reports usually refer to declining levels of anti-CoV-2 antibodies, which happens naturally. Such announcements do not take into account your immune memory, which is harder to measure, but which is a better metric of your long term immunity. The problem also is that we simply have not had enough time with the vaccines to know how long their immune memory persists. It seems relevant that a study published in July 2020 reported that people who were infected with SARS in 2003 maintained robust T cell immunity 17 years later. So far, indications are that even though antibody levels fall over time, immunological memory after vaccination also remains robust. This is seen by the continued protection from serious disease and death in vaccinated people with low antibody levels. The vaccines and the immune memory they stimulate are working. How long that memory persists is unknown. Time will tell.
So why are we getting the booster shots? In the face of a raging pandemic caused by a novel pathogen, the cautious approach is to keep antibody levels at a protective level in vaccinated people until we better understand the extent of long-term protection brought on by our immune memory. The boosters, therefore, represent a cautious approach to maintain an effective antibody defense during these still early months of a novel pandemic. We likely will reach a time where world-wide immunity from vaccination and natural infection will give us baseline protection that will render COVID-19 mostly a bothersome disease rather than a life threatening infection. Until then, the boosters are a good idea to help us maintain an effective antibody defense against serious disease.
The natural pathology of measles is instructive here. Even though antibody levels typically decline after most immunizations, antibodies produced after a measles vaccine persist for many years. This happens with some other, but not all, vaccines too, but why? In countries where the measles virus is endemic, repeated infection of vaccinated people keeps the antibody immune response in continual high gear. That is not the case with the flu virus which changes rapidly and bypasses last years shot. Interestingly, measles has been eradicated from the US and Western Europe, so vaccinated people are not continually exposed and re-exposed to the virus and, unlike for those who live in endemic areas, our anti-measles antibody levels decline. Therefore, our long-term protection against the virus is due to our immune memory and not due to antibody levels.
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