There are at least 7 reasons why immunity after vaccination or infection with COVID-19 should likely be long-lived. If durable, I do not think boosters will be necessary in the future, despite CEOs of pharmaceutical companies (who stand to profit from boosters) messaging that they may and readying such boosters. To explain these reasons, let's orient ourselves to the main components of the immune system.
There are two major arms of the immune system: B cells (which produce antibodies) and T cells (which are formed specifically to attack and kill pathogens). T cells are divided into two types, CD4 cells ("helper" T cells) and CD8 cells ("cytotoxic" T cells).
Each arm, once stimulated by infection or vaccine, should hopefully make "memory" banks. So if the body sees the pathogen in the future, these defenses should come roaring back to attack the virus and protect you from getting sick. Plenty of research in COVID-19 indicates a likely long-lasting response to the vaccine or infection. Here are seven of the most compelling reasons:
REASON 1: Memory B Cells Are Produced By Vaccines and Natural Infection
In one study, 12 volunteers who had never had Covid-19--and were fully vaccinated with two Pfizer/BioNTech shots-- underwent biopsies of their lymph nodes. This is where memory B cells are stored in places called "germinal centers". The biopsies were performed three, four, six, and seven weeks after the first mRNA vaccine shot, and were stained to reveal that germinal center memory B cells in the lymph nodes increased in concentration over time.
Natural infection also generates memory B cells. Even after antibody levels wane over time, strong memory B cells were detected in the blood of individuals six and eight months after infection in different studies. Indeed, the half-lives of the memory B cells seen in the study examining patients 8 months after COVID-19 led the authors to conclude that "B cell memory to SARS-CoV-2 was robust and is likely long-lasting." Reason #2 tells us that memory B cells can be active for a very long time indeed.
REASON #2: Memory B Cells Can Produce Neutralizing Antibodies If They See Infection Again Decades Later
Demonstrated production of memory B cells after vaccination or natural infection with COVID-19 is so important because memory B cells, once generated, can be activated to produce high levels of neutralizing antibodies against the pathogen even if encountered many years after the initial exposure. In one amazing study (published in 2008), researchers isolated memory B cells against the 1918 flu strain from the blood of 32 individuals aged 91-101 years. These people had been born on or before 1915 and had survived that pandemic.
Their memory B cells, when exposed to the 1918 flu strain in a test tube, generated high levels of neutralizing antibodies against the virus -- antibodies that then protected mice from lethal infection with this deadly strain. The ability of memory B cells to produce complex antibody responses against an infection nine decades after exposure speaks to their durability.
REASON #3: Vaccines or Natural Infection Trigger Strong Memory T Cell Immunity
All of the trials of the major COVID-19 vaccine candidates measured strong T cell immunity following vaccination, most often assessed by measuring SARS-CoV-2 specific T cells in the phase I/II safety and immunogenicity studies. There are a number of studies that demonstrate the production of strong T cell immunity to COVID-19 after natural infection as well, even when the infection was mild or asymptomatic.
The same study that showed us robust memory B cell production 8 months after natural infection also demonstrated strong and sustained memory T cell production. In fact, the half-lives of the memory T cells in this cohort were long (~125-225 days for CD8+ and ~94-153 days for CD4+ T cells), comparable to the 123-day half-life observed for memory CD8+ T cells after yellow fever immunization (a vaccine usually given once over a lifetime).
A recent study of individuals recovered from COVID-19 show that the initial T cells generated by natural infection mature and differentiate over time into memory T cells that will be "put in the bank" for sustained periods.
REASON #4: T Cell Immunity Following Vaccinations for Other Infections Is Long-Lasting
Last year, we were fortunate to be able to measure how T cell immunity is generated by COVID-19 vaccines, which was not possible in earlier eras when vaccine trials were done for other infections (such as measles, mumps, rubella, pertussis, diphtheria). Antibodies are just the "tip of the iceberg" when assessing the response to vaccination, but were the only arm of the immune response that could be measured following vaccination in the past.
Measuring pathogen-specific T cell responses takes sophisticated technology. However, T cell responses, when assessed years after vaccination for other pathogens, has been shown to be long-lasting. For example, in one study of 56 volunteers who had undergone measles vaccination when they were much younger, strong CD8 and CD4 cell responses to vaccination could be detected up to 34 years later.
REASON #5: T Cell Immunity to Related Coronaviruses That Caused Severe Disease is Long-Lasting
SARS-CoV-2 is a coronavirus that causes severe disease, unlike coronaviruses that cause the common cold. Two other coronaviruses in the recent past caused severe disease, specifically Severely Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (SARS) in late 2002-2003 and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2011.
A study performed in 2020 demonstrated that the blood of 23 recovered SARS patients possess long-lasting memory T cells that were still reactive to SARS 17 years after the outbreak in 2003. Many scientists expect that T cell immunity to SARS-CoV-2 will be equally durable to that of its cousin.
REASON #6: T Cell Responses from Vaccination and Natural Infection With the Ancestral Strain of COVID-19 Are Robust Against Variants
Even though antibody responses from vaccination may be slightly lower against various COVID-19 variants of concern that have emerged in recent months, T cell immunity after vaccination has been shown to be unperturbed by mutations in the spike protein (in the variants). For instance, T cell responses after mRNA vaccines maintained strong activity against different variants (including P.1 Brazil variant, B.1.1.7 UK variant, B.1.351 South Africa variant and the CA.20.C California variant) in a recent study.
Another study showed that the vaccines generated robust T cell immunity that was unfazed by different variants, including B.1.351 and B.1.1.7. The CD4 and CD8 responses generated after natural infection are equally robust, showing activity against multiple "epitopes" (little segments) of the spike protein of the virus. For instance, CD8 cells responds to 52 epitopes and CD4 cells respond to 57 epitopes across the spike protein, so that a few mutations in the variants cannot knock out such a robust and in-breadth T cell response. Indeed, a recent paper showed that mRNA vaccines were 97.4 percent effective against severe COVID-19 disease in Qatar, even when the majority of circulating virus there was from variants of concern (B.1.351 and B.1.1.7).
REASON #7: Coronaviruses Don't Mutate Quickly Like Influenza, Which Requires Annual Booster Shots
Coronaviruses are RNA viruses, like influenza and HIV (which is actually a retrovirus), but do not mutate as quickly as either one. The reason that coronaviruses don't mutate very rapidly is that their replicating mechanism (polymerase) has a strong proofreading mechanism: If the virus mutates, it usually goes back and self-corrects. Mutations can arise with high rates of replication when transmission is very frequent -- as has been seen in recent months with the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 variants during surges. However, the COVID-19 virus will not be mutating like this when we tamp down transmission with mass vaccination.
In conclusion, I and many of my infectious disease colleagues expect the immunity from natural infection or vaccination to COVID-19 to be durable. Let's put discussion of boosters aside and work hard on global vaccine equity and distribution since the pandemic is not over until it is over for us all.
Vaccines are one of the greatest public health accomplishments of all time. For centuries, public health has relied on vaccinations to prevent and control disease outbreaks for a plethora of infectious scourges, with our crowning achievement being the successful eradication of smallpox.
The purpose of vaccine documentation is to provide proof of an individual's protection from either becoming infected or transmitting a vaccine-preventable disease. Vouching for these protections requires a firm knowledge about the epidemiology of the disease, as well as scientific knowledge concerning the efficacy of the vaccine. The vaccines we currently require be documented have met these tests; the vaccine for COVID-19 has not yet been proven to do so.
Let's acknowledge that the term "vaccine passport" is a poor choice of words. Passports are a legal travel document created by nations and governed by law for identification of the bearer to control entry and exit from nation states. They often serve as legal forms of identification and as a record of international travel. They are generally very sophisticated documents that have been created in a secure manner and may include a range of electronic and, in some cases, biometric measures such as fingerprints to ensure the holder is indeed who they say they are. Vaccine passports are medical documents used to document the vaccination status of an individual. They do not undergo the same level of administrative scrutiny and cannot be used to verify that the presenter is indeed the vaccinated individual. Some companies do have electronic methods to address concerns about verification; however, most people currently have paper records that can be easily falsified.
"Vaccine passports" as currently proposed risk giving people a false sense of security.
Successful disease control from vaccination programs relies on the ability to vaccinate at a level that prevents large-scale disease spread and the ability to rapidly identify the presence of disease outbreaks. It requires reliable, safe, and effective vaccines that are easily delivered in clinical and nonclinical settings. Keeping vaccination information as a part of the medical record, and even having a separate specialized vaccine record for personal use, is a time-honored tradition.
Keeping a vaccination record provides a method to keep track of the many shots one receives and serves as a visual reminder to help ensure the appropriate vaccine shot schedule is maintained for vaccines requiring multiple doses. The vaccine record, when combined with vaccine safety monitoring systems, serves as a mechanism to track adverse events to monitor and ensure the safety of vaccines as a consumer product. The record also serves as the official record of vaccination when required for administrative or legally prescribed purposes.
"Vaccine passports" as currently proposed risk giving people a false sense of security. In the case of the COVID-19 vaccines currently approved for use, many of the essential questions remain unanswered. While we do know the current three vaccines are highly protective against severe disease and death, and there is some evidence that these vaccinations do reduce infections and virus transmission of SARS-CoV-2, we do not yet know the full degree to which this occurs.
For example, we know there have been some cases of people that have been infected in close proximity to getting their full vaccination and rare cases of breakthrough reinfections. A breakthrough infection in a restaurant is a challenge for contact tracing, but an outbreak from a movie theater exposure or a baseball game could spark a major outbreak at our current level of vaccination. Current CDC guidance recommends continued mask wearing in order to address these concerns.
We also do not yet know how long the protections will last and if or when a booster or revaccination is required. In effect, it is too soon to know. Should an annual booster shot be required, then a vaccine passport would require annual updating, a process more frequent than renewal of a driver's license.
We also know that the current SARS-CoV-2 virus is mutating briskly. While the current approved vaccines have remained effective overall, there is evidence of some degree of degradation in vaccine effectiveness against some of the circulating strains. We also have sparse data on many of the other emerging strains of concern because we have not had the surveillance capacity in the U.S. to gain an adequate sense of how the virus is changing to fully align vaccine effectiveness with viral capabilities.
The risk of people misusing these "passports" is troubling. The potential for using these documents for hiring, firing or job limitation is a serious concern. Unvaccinated workers are at risk of this form of discrimination even from well-meaning employers or supervisors. Health insurers are prohibited by the Affordable Care Act from discriminating based on preexisting conditions, but they could probably charge a higher premium for unvaccinated individuals. There also is a risk of stigmatizing individuals who are not vaccinated or have left their vaccine documentation at home. Another concern: the opportunity to discriminate based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion, using one's vaccination status as an excuse.
These "passports" are being discussed as a "ticket verification" for entry to many activities, including dining at restaurants, flying domestically and/or internationally, going to movie theaters and sporting events, etc. These are all activities we already are doing at reduced levels and for which wearing a mask, hand hygiene and physical distancing are effective disease control practices. COVID-19 vaccines are indeed the measure that will make the ability to totally reopen our society complete, but we are not there yet. Documentation of one's COVID-19 vaccine status may be useful in selected situations in the future. That remains to be seen.
Finally, inadequate vaccine supply and disparities in vaccine delivery have created enormous challenges in providing equal access to vaccination. Also, the amount of misinformation, disinformation, and lingering vaccine hesitancy continue to limit the speed at which we will reach the level of vaccination of the population that would make this documentation meaningful. The requirement for "vaccine passports" is already alienating people who are opposed to vaccinations for a variety of reasons, paradoxically risking reduced vaccine uptake. This politicization of the vaccination effort is of concern. There are indeed people who, due to medical contraindications or legal exemptions, will not be vaccinated, and we do not yet have a national framework on how to address this.
Vaccine passports are not the solution for reopening our society — a robust vaccination program is. The requirement to document one's vaccination status for COVID-19 may one day have its place. For now, it is an idea whose time has not yet come.
Editor's Note: This op/ed is part of a "Big Question" series on the ethics of vaccine passports. Read the flip side argument here.
"Vaccine passports" are a system that requires proof of a COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of engaging in activities that pose a risk of transmitted SARS-CoV-2. Digital Health Passes (DHPs) are typically a smartphone application with a code that verifies whether someone has been vaccinated.
Vaccine passports could very much be in our future. Many businesses are implementing or planning to require proof of vaccination as a condition of returning to the workplace. Colleges and universities have announced vaccine requirements for students, staff, and faculty. It may not be long before the private sector requires a vaccination card or image to attend an entertainment or sporting event, to travel, or even to dine or shop indoors, at least in some venues.
But it's unlikely the federal government or the states will launch DHPs, at least not in the near-term. President Biden announced the White House has no intention of requiring proof of vaccination. While no state has mandated DHPs, New York is piloting its Excelsior Pass on a voluntary basis, partnering with IBM. Other nations are not so hesitant. Israel's "Green Pass" has gotten the nation back to normal in record time. And various countries and regions are planning DHPs, including the European Union and the United Kingdom. Foreign airlines are likely to require proof of vaccination as a condition of flying internationally.
DHPs could emerge as a way to get us back to normal more quickly, but are they ethical? Let's start with the law. The US Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has specifically said that employers have the legal right to require proof of vaccination as a condition of returning to work. Colleges and universities already require several vaccines for students living in dorms. Hospitals and nursing homes often mandate influenza vaccinations. And, of course, all states require childhood vaccinations for school attendance. Vaccine passports are lawful but are they ethical? The short answer is "yes" but only if we ensure no one is left behind.
Vaccine passports "don't force anyone to be vaccinated against his or her will. They simply say to individuals that if you choose not to be vaccinated, you can't work or recreate in public spaces that risk transmission of the virus."
Why are vaccine passports ethical? Vaccines are a miracle of modern science, but they have become a political symbol, and a significant part of the population doesn't want to get a jab. The rare cases of blood clots associated with the Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines have only created more distrust.
Most opposition to vaccine passports hinges on the claim that they infringe personal autonomy and liberty. But this argument misses the point. Of course, every competent adult has the right to make decisions that affect his or her own health and safety. But no one has a right to infringe on the rights of others, such as by exposing them to a potentially serious or deadly infectious disease. An individual can't claim the right to attend a crowded event mask-less and unvaccinated. This was once accepted across the political spectrum. Conservative economists called it an "externality," that is a person has no right to harm others. The U.S. has lost the tradition of the common good. We have become so focused on our own individual rights that we forget about our ethical obligations to our neighbors and to our community.
In fact, DHPs actually don't force anyone to be vaccinated against his or her will. They simply say to individuals that if you choose not to be vaccinated, you can't work or recreate in public spaces that risk transmission of the virus.
DHPs also don't infringe on privacy. Again, everyone has the choice whether to show proof of vaccination. It isn't required. Moreover, DHPs may actually protect privacy because all they do is show whether or not you have been vaccinated. They don't disclose any other personal medical information. All of us actually have already had to show proof of vaccination as a condition of going to school. Thus, DHPs are well established in the United States.
But there is one ethical argument against DHPs that I find to be powerful, and that is equity. If we require proof of vaccination while doses are scarce, we will give the already privileged even more privilege. And that would be unconscionable. Thus, DHPs should not be implemented until everyone who wants a vaccine is able to get a vaccine. Equity isn't a side issue. It needs to be front and center.
As of today, all adults in the U.S. are eligible to get vaccinated, and President Biden has pledged that by the end of May there will be enough doses to vaccinate the entire U.S. population. It is a realistic promise. Once vaccines become plentiful, everyone should get their shot. All Food and Drug Administration authorized vaccines are highly safe and effective, even the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that the FDA has just put on pause.
Businesses have an economic incentive to require proof of vaccination. Very few of us would feel comfortable returning to our jobs, shops, theaters, or restaurants unless we feel safe. Businesses understand the duty to create safer places for work, recreation, and commerce.
One question has dominated national conversation since the pandemic began. "When will we get back to normal?" There is a deep human yearning to hug family and friends, see our work colleagues, recreate, and be entertained. One day we will have defeated this wily virus and get back to normal. But vaccine passports can help us get back to the things we love faster and more safely. As long as we don't leave anyone behind, using this miracle of modern science to make our lives better is both lawful and ethical.
Editor's Note: This op/ed is part of a "Big Question" series on the ethics of vaccine passports. Read the flip-side argument here.