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Breakthrough Infections Occur in Those with Lower Antibody Levels, Israeli Study Shows

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A wall of bricks with antibody symbols on them. Where one brick is missing, viruses flood through.

To see how COVID-19 vaccines are working in the real world, Israel has provided particularly compelling data. The fact that Israel is relatively small, keeps comprehensive medical records, and has a high vaccination rate with a single vaccine (Pfizer) has contributed to its robust data collection. Now, a new Israeli study offers some insight into those relatively uncommon breakthrough infections. It confirms that breakthrough cases, as might be expected, arise most often in individuals with lower levels of neutralizing antibodies.

The findings reported in The New England Journal of Medicine focused on nearly 1,500 of about 11,500 fully vaccinated health care workers at Sheba Medical Center, Ramat Gan, Israel [1]. All had received two doses of the Pfizer mRNA vaccine. But, from December 19, 2020 to April 28, 2021, they were tested for a breakthrough infection due to a known exposure to someone with COVID-19 or possible symptoms of the disease.

Just 39 confirmed breakthrough cases were found, indicating a breakthrough infection rate of just 0.4 percent. That’s consistent with rates reported in previous studies. Most in the Israeli study who tested positive for COVID-19 had mild or no symptoms and none required hospitalization.

In the new study, researchers led by Gili Regev-Yochay at Sheba Medical Center’s Infection Control and Prevention Unit, characterized as many breakthrough infections as possible among the health care workers. Almost half of the infections involved members of the hospital nursing staff. But breakthrough cases also were found in hospital administration, maintenance workers, doctors, and other health professionals.

The average age of someone with a breakthrough infection was 42, and it’s notable that only one person was known to have a weakened immune system. The most common symptoms were respiratory congestion, muscle aches (myalgia), and loss of smell or taste. Most didn’t develop a fever. At six weeks after diagnosis, 19 percent reported having symptoms of Long COVID syndrome, including prolonged loss of smell, persistent cough, weakness, and fatigue. About a quarter stayed home from work for longer than the required 10 days, and one had yet to return to work at six weeks.

For 22 of the 39 people with a breakthrough infection, the researchers had results of neutralizing antibody tests from the week leading up to their positive COVID-19 test result. To look for patterns in the antibody data, they matched those individuals to 104 uninfected people for whom they also had antibody test results. These data showed that those with a breakthrough infection had consistently lower levels of neutralizing antibodies circulating in their bloodstream to SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. In general, higher levels of neutralizing antibodies are associated with greater protection and lower infectivity—though other aspects of the immune system (memory B cells and cell-mediated immunity) also contribute.

Importantly, in all cases for which there were relevant data, the source of the breakthrough infection was thought to be an unvaccinated person. In fact, more than half of those who developed a breakthrough infection appeared to have become infected from an unvaccinated member of their own household.

Other cases were suspected to arise from exposure to an unvaccinated coworker or patient. Contact tracing found no evidence that any of the 39 health care workers with a breakthrough infection passed it on to anyone else.

The findings add to evidence that full vaccination and associated immunity offer good protection against SARS-CoV-2 infection and severe illness. Understanding how SARS-CoV-2 immunity changes over time is key for charting the course of this pandemic and making important decisions about COVID-19 vaccine boosters.

Many questions remain. For instance, it’s not clear from the study whether lower neutralizing antibodies in those with breakthrough cases reflect waning immunity or, for reasons we don’t yet understand, those individuals may have had a more limited immune response to the vaccine. Also, this study was conducted before the Delta variant became dominant in Israel (and now in the whole world).

Overall, these findings provide more reassurance that these vaccines are extremely effective. Breakthrough infections, while they can and do occur, are a relatively uncommon event. Here in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recently estimated that infection is six times less likely for vaccinated than unvaccinated persons [2]. That those with immunity tend to have mild or no symptoms if they do develop a breakthrough case, however, is a reminder that these cases could easily be missed, and they could put vulnerable populations at greater risk. It’s yet another reason for all those who can to get themselves vaccinated as soon as possible or consider a booster shot when they become eligible.

References:

[1] Covid-19 breakthrough infections in vaccinated health care workers. Bergwerk M, Gonen T, Lustig Y, Amit S, Lipsitch M, Cohen C, Mandelboim M, Levin EG, Rubin C, Indenbaum V, Tal I, Zavitan M, Zuckerman N, Bar-Chaim A, Kreiss Y, Regev-Yochay G. N Engl J Med. 2021 Oct 14;385(16):1474-1484.

[2] Rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths by vaccination status, COVID Data Tracker, Centers for Disease and Prevention. Accessed October 25, 2021.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Sheba Medical Center (Ramat Gan, Israel)


The Latest on COVID-19 Boosters

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COVID-19 Vaccine vials labeled dose one, dose two, and booster

More than 180 million Americans, including more than 80 percent of people over age 65, are fully vaccinated against the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for COVID-19. There’s no question that full vaccination is the best way to protect yourself against this devastating virus and reduce your chances of developing severe or long-lasting illness if you do get sick. But, to stay ahead of this terrible virus, important questions do remain. A big one right now is: How soon will booster shots be needed and for whom?

The answers to this question will continue to evolve as more high-quality data become available. But here’s what we know right now for the Pfizer-BioNTech booster. Late last week, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recommended that:

  • Those 65 years and older and residents in long-term care settings should receive a booster shot at least 6 months after being fully vaccinated with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine,
  • People aged 50–64 years with underlying medical conditions should receive a booster shot at least 6 months after being fully vaccinated with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine,
  • Individuals aged 18–49 years with underlying medical conditions may receive a booster shot at least 6 months after getting fully vaccinated with their Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, based on their individual benefits and risks.
  • Frontline workers who received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine may receive a booster. This group includes anyone age 18 through 64 whose frequent institutional or occupational exposure to SARS-CoV-2 puts them at high risk of COVID-19. [1]

Taken together, these CDC recommendations are in line with those issued two days earlier by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) [2].

Some of the most-compelling data that was under review came from an Israeli study, published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine, that explored the benefit of booster shots for older people [3]. Israel, with a population of around 9 million, has a national health system and one of the world’s highest COVID-19 vaccination rates. That country’s vaccination campaign, based solely on Pfizer-BioNTech, was organized early in 2021, and so its experience is about three months ahead of ours here in the U.S. These features, plus some of the world’s largest integrated health record databases, have made Israel an important source of early data on how the Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA vaccine can be expected to work in the real world over time.

Earlier this year, Israeli public health officials noted evidence for an increased number of breakthrough infections, some of which were severe. So, at the end of July 2021, Israel approved the administration of third doses, or “boosters,” of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for people ages 60 and up who had received their second dose at least five months before.

To find out how well these booster shots worked to bolster immune protection against COVID-19, researchers looked to more than 1.1 million fully vaccinated people who were at least 60 years old. They compared the rate of confirmed COVID-19 infection and severe illness from the end of July to the end of August among people who’d received a booster at least 12 days earlier with those who hadn’t gotten boosters.

Nearly 13,500 older individuals who’d been fully vaccinated before March 2021, got a breakthrough infection during the two months of study. Importantly, the rate of confirmed infection in the group that got boosters was 10 times lower on average than in the group that didn’t get boosters. The data on severe illness looked even better. Of course, there could be other factors at play that weren’t accounted for in the study, but the findings certainly suggest that a third Pfizer shot is safe and effective for older people.

Though the Israeli studies on booster shots are a little ahead of the international pack, we are starting to see results from the research underway in the U.S. Last week, for example, Johnson & Johnson announced new data in support of boosters to improve and extend immune protection in those who received its single-dose COVID-19 vaccine [4]. For people who received the Moderna mRNA vaccine, the company has already submitted its data to the FDA for booster authorization. A decision is expected soon.

As the critical evidence on boosters continues to emerge, the most important way to avoid another winter surge of COVID-19 is to follow all public health recommendations. Most importantly, that includes getting fully vaccinated if you haven’t already, and encouraging others around you to do the same. If you’re currently eligible for a booster shot, they are available at 80,000 locations across the nation, and can help you stay healthy and well for the coming holiday season.

For others eager to do everything possible to protect themselves, their families, and their communities against this terrible virus—but who are not yet eligible for a booster—sit tight for now. The data on booster shots are still coming in for folks like me who were immunized with the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines. It’s likely that the FDA and CDC will widen their recommendations in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, the Delta variant is still out there and circulating. That makes it critical to maintain vigilance. Wear a mask in indoor spaces, keep a physical distance from others, and remember to wash your hands frequently. We are all really tired of COVID-19, but patience is still required as we learn more about how best to stay ahead of this virus.

References:

[1] CDC statement on ACIP booster recommendations. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention news release. September 24, 2021

[2] FDA authorizes booster dose of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for certain populations. Food and Drug Administration news release. September 22, 2021

[3] Protection of BNT162b2 vaccine booster against Covid-19 in Israel. Bar-On YM, Goldberg Y, Mandel M, Bodenheimer O, Freedman L, Kalkstein N, Mizrahi B, Alroy-Preis S, Ash N, Milo R, Huppert A. N Engl J Med. 2021 Sep 15.

[4] Johnson & Johnson announces real-world evidence and Phase 3 data confirming strong and long-lasting protection of single-shot COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S. Johnson & Johnson. September 21, 2021.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)


Is One Vaccine Dose Enough After COVID-19 Infection?

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COVID-19 vaccination record card
Credit: iStock/Bill Oxford

For the millions of Americans now eligible to receive the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, it’s recommended that everyone get two shots. The first dose of these mRNA vaccines trains the immune system to recognize and attack the spike protein on the surface of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The second dose, administered a few weeks later, boosts antibody levels to afford even better protection. People who’ve recovered from COVID-19 also should definitely get vaccinated to maximize protection against possible re-infection. But, because they already have some natural immunity, would just one shot do the trick? Or do they still need two?

A small, NIH-supported study, published as a pre-print on medRxiv, offers some early data on this important question [1]. The findings show that immune response to the first vaccine dose in a person who’s already had COVID-19 is equal to, or in some cases better, than the response to the second dose in a person who hasn’t had COVID-19. While much more research is needed—and I am definitely not suggesting a change in the current recommendations right now—the results raise the possibility that one dose might be enough for someone who’s been infected with SARS-CoV-2 and already generated antibodies against the virus.

These findings come from a research team led by Florian Krammer and Viviana Simon, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York. The researchers reasoned that for folks whose bodies have already produced antibodies following a COVID-19 infection, the first shot might act similarly to the second one in someone who hadn’t had the virus before. In fact, there was some anecdotal evidence suggesting that previously infected people were experiencing stronger evidence of an active immune response (sore arm, fever, chills, fatigue) than never-infected individuals after getting their first shots.

What did the antibodies show? To find out, the researchers enlisted the help of 109 people who’d received their first dose of mRNA vaccines made by either Pfizer or Moderna. They found that those who’d never been infected by SARS-CoV-2 developed antibodies at low levels within 9 to 12 days of receiving their first dose of vaccine.

But in 41 people who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies prior to getting the first shot, the immune response looked strikingly different. They generated high levels of antibodies within just a few days of getting the vaccine. Compared across different time intervals, previously infected people had immune responses 10 to 20 times that observed in uninfected people. Following their second vaccine dose, it was roughly the same story. Antibody levels in those with a prior infection were about 10 times greater than the others.

Both vaccines were generally well tolerated. But, because their immune systems were already in high gear, people who were previously infected tended to have more symptoms following their first shot, such as pain and swelling at the injection site. They also were more likely to report other less common symptoms, including fatigue, fever, chills, headache, muscle aches, and joint pain.

Though sometimes it may not seem like it, COVID-19 and the mRNA vaccines are still relatively new. Researchers haven’t yet been able to study how long these vaccines confer immunity to the disease, which has now claimed the lives of more than 500,000 Americans. But these findings do suggest that a single dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines can produce a rapid and strong immune response in people who’ve already recovered from COVID-19.

If other studies support these results, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) might decide to consider whether one dose is enough for people who’ve had a prior COVID-19 infection. Such a policy is already under consideration in France and, if implemented, would help to extend vaccine supply and get more people vaccinated sooner. But any serious consideration of this option will require more data. It will also be up to the expert advisors at FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to decide.

For now, the most important thing all of us can all do to get this terrible pandemic under control is to follow the 3 W’s—wear our masks, wash our hands, watch our distance from others—and roll up our sleeves for the vaccine as soon as it’s available to us.

Reference:

[1] Robust spike antibody responses and increased reactogenicity in seropositive individuals after a single dose of SARS-CoV-2 mRNA vaccine. Krammer F et al. medRxiv. 2021 Feb 1.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Krammer Lab (Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, NY)

Simon Lab (Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases


Getting My COVID-19 Booster Shot

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Man receiving vaccine shot
I was grateful to receive my second, or “booster,” shot of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the NIH Clinical Center on Jan. 19, 2021. As NIH Director, I’ve closely followed the development of this and other FDA-authorized vaccines, which have been rigorously tested for safety and efficacy. To protect both yourself and others, I encourage you to get vaccinated when the opportunity arises. Credit: NIH

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