Updated: December 23, 2021 8:06:05 am
Written by Carl Zimmer and Sheryl Stolberg
A flurry of new laboratory studies indicate that vaccines, and especially booster shots, may offer protection against the worst outcomes from the fast-spreading omicron coronavirus variant. The highly mutated virus, however, will still cause many breakthrough infections in vaccinated people and in those who have been infected with older versions of the virus, according to the research.
At a World Health Organization meeting on Wednesday, scientists reported on several studies suggesting that T cells in vaccinated people can put up a strong defense against the variant, which could help prevent severe disease, hospitalization and death.
Also on Wednesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s top medical adviser for the coronavirus response, shared preliminary data from his institute’s analysis of the Moderna vaccine. While two shots produced a negligible antibody response against omicron in the laboratory, the protection shot up after a third dose, he said.
Other researchers at the WHO meeting presented similar results, showing that booster shots of either Moderna or Pfizer mRNA vaccines lifted antibodies back to levels believed high enough to offer strong protection against infection.
Though the research is based on preliminary observations of cells in the laboratory, it is nevertheless a welcome departure from a torrent of worrying new data about omicron. Over the past week, it has become increasingly clear that omicron can deftly evade antibodies, part of the body’s first line of defense, which probably explains why infections with the variant have exploded in many countries. But antibodies are not the only important players in a person’s immune response to the virus. T cells have their own role.
“The good news is that T cell responses are largely maintained to omicron,” said Wendy Burgers of the University of Cape Town during a presentation of new research she and her colleagues have carried out in recent days.
This week, scientists in South Africa reported that two doses of the Pfizer vaccine were 33% effective against an omicron infection, down from about 80% during what Fauci called “the pre-omicron era.” The study found that two doses of the Pfizer vaccine offered 70% protection against severe hospitalization and death, down from about 95% before omicron was detected.
“So the message remains clear: If you are unvaccinated get vaccinated, and particularly in the arena of omicron, if you are fully vaccinated, get your booster shot,” Fauci said.
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