Many European countries and Canada, for example, did a better job of making sure more of their population got boosters. Their cumulative death and illness tolls from the Omicron wave are sharply lower than those of the United States, where only about a third of eligible adults had gotten boosters, compared with two-thirds of adults in many European countries. The United States has had a death rate 80 percent greater than Canada’s from the Omicron wave — a similar pattern holds globally. Countries like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have about 80 percent or more of their adult population boosted, and their death tolls are even lower.
Many might also be wondering why bother with one more shot since 68 percent of Americans have had two initial vaccination shots, some of those have had booster shots already, and most likely about 60 percent of the country got some level of immunity from an Omicron infection.
Deepta Bhattacharya, an immunologist, told me that variants evolved to evade the first line of antibody protection generated by earlier vaccines or past infections, even though protections against severe disease remained fairly strong. But the new boosters can greatly decrease that evasion. When the initial vaccines were trialed, matching the strain that was then in circulation, they reported 90 percent to 95 percent protection against any symptomatic infection, which then declined against variants and with time. While exact numbers remain to be seen, all the immunologists I spoke with told me the updated boosters should again increase such protections.
Vaccines (and boosters) have already been shown to greatly reduce rates of long Covid among the infected, but obviously, if infection is avoided completely, that would directly sidestep the risk of long Covid. Shane Crotty, an immunologist, also noted that these boosters will probably further reduce the chances of more severe disease complications, which include long Covid, and says “the higher your level of immunity, the less viral replication you’re going to have, the less viral damage, the less likelihood of long Covid.”
And these new boosters can be expected to do even more going forward — including providing better protection against future variants, by better training both antibodies and memory cells, which are different parts of the immune system. As Bhattacharya told me, being exposed to different versions of the virus (as will happen with these updated boosters) further deepens and broadens the kind of antibodies that get generated, including ones that can work against future variants. Marion Pepper, an immunologist, told me a new variant vaccine can also “create new, more diverse memory cells that will help protect from Omicron variants and new variants that we have yet to encounter.”
Unfortunately we may face another problem we have witnessed throughout the pandemic: public health officials or prominent media doctors casting doubt on the boosters by focusing on their imperfections rather than their immense benefits and worrying about public reaction — like concerns about “vaccine fatigue.”