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UC Researcher Explains Why Vaccine Boosters Might Not Help As Much As You Think


COVID-19 vaccine booster shots are the subject of debate among scientists and policy makers. Some, including Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor, say boosters could be released to the general public by this fall because the vaccine's effectiveness slightly decreases over time. But other researchers, including some FDA scientists, say boosters aren't necessarily the best way to fight the deadly virus.

Researcher Dr. Carl Fichtenbaum, a professor of Infectious Diseases at the University of Cincinnati and UC Health, falls into the latter category.

"So the first thing is that we have a limited supply of vaccine worldwide. We cannot vaccinate 7 billion people. We don't have enough vaccine," he said. "So what is the best strategy to prevent further damage, further death, further sickness around the world? Is the best strategy to vaccinate as many people as we can? Because it's not like the vaccine doesn't work. Even later on, it does still work. It is still protected, it is still better than being unvaccinated."

According to Our World in Data, about 32% of the world population has been vaccinated. But rates in dozens of developing countries remain in the single-digit range.

Fichtenbaum says that's a problem because the longer the virus is spreading around the world, the more likely it is to mutate.

"So the question becomes, shouldn't we just vaccinate everybody? And because the longer that this virus circulates around the world, the more likely that another variant will emerge and we could have further dissemination," he said.

According to NPR reports, a study from the CDC says the vaccines' ability to stop symptomatic infections decreases about 10% over time, from about 90% effective to 80%. And the vaccines' ability to slow hospitalizations and deaths remains around 90% across all age groups.

That's different for immunocompromised people. Fichtenbaum says research shows immunocompromised people did not develop the same level of neutralizing antibodies with just the standard dose of the vaccine. Antibodies increased with a vaccine booster.

But otherwise, Fichtenbaum says boosters take the vaccine away from other people in need across the globe.

Boosters For Some Moving Forward In The U.S.

The FDA and Biden administration may be launching plans to get people in the United States boosters in the coming weeks. A timeline is uncertain, butDr. Anthony Fauci encouragedpeople not to get booster shots before they're eligible.

The FDA said last week people over age 65 or at high risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms should get a booster.

President Biden, however,said in August a booster program would begin this month for people who received their last dose eight months ago. Plans to do so have not been announced.

Despite these pushes,the World Health Organization sides with the ideology shared by Fichtenbaum: booster shots should wait until more people can be vaccinated.

'I Worry We're Confusing People'

The conflicting messaging from scientists and lawmakers could be doing more harm than good.

Fichtenbaum has been doing infectious disease research for 25 years and has done several intervention trials for COVID-19.

"I suspect that if we launch a booster program, it will take time before people can get those boosters, and we may already be in a steep decline already from this (delta variant) outbreak," he says. "And so what would we be accomplishing? And, I worry that we're confusing people."

Another issue Fichtenbaum says is important is analyzing who benefits from booster shots the most — pharmaceutical companies.

"The one thing we haven't talked about are the economic incentives for boosters. So there are (incentives) because of the way our economic system runs. There are people who stand to gain quite a bit with more vaccination," he said. "And so that cannot be discounted. I'm not saying that's their motivation. But unfortunately, that is an aspect of how decisions are made."

He says decisions about who gets health care when shouldn't be influenced by what others have to gain by immediately distributing more vaccines. But he said that's not an argument against getting initially vaccinated.

The Hamilton County Health Department said in a brief email they're following recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Federal Drug Administration when it comes to their plans for booster shots locally — that means people over age 65 or those who are immunocompromised are currently eligible.

Jolene Almendarez is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants who came to San Antonio in the 1960s. She was raised in a military family and has always called the city home. She studied journalism at San Antonio College and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism and Public Communications from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She's been a reporter in San Antonio and Castroville, Texas, and in Syracuse and Ithaca, New York.