Early this week the CDC announced that its director, Rochelle Wollensky, was infected with COVID-19. While she is reportedly doing well and isolating at home, this raised eyebrows because she had received the new bivalent SARS-CoV-2 vaccine booster just a month before. Her immunity to COVID infection from this booster should have been at its peak when she became infected.
What does her infection suggest, and what does it mean for people looking to take the new vaccine?
The likely reason CDC Director Wolinsky was infected was because the new bivalent vaccine was tailored for older versions of Omicron virus variants BA4 and BA5 that were circulating in the U.S. last spring. Newer variants, such as BQ1 now account for approximately 27% of coronavirus infections in the U.S. Therefore, even though the CDC and the FDA approved a vaccine based on the viruses circulating in the U.S. last spring, new viruses that escape antibodies created by the vaccine have become common since that time. The mismatch is why people are getting newly infected.
What does this mean?
First, do not panic. Very few people are getting seriously ill or dying from this infection if they have some degree of immunity.
Importantly, if you are over the age of 50, or have some type of medical issue that puts you at risk, you should get the new booster vaccine. This is especially true if you are more than 6 to 12 months out from your last booster.
Why would I recommend this?
The booster clearly does not completely keep you from getting COVID-19. Dr. Wolinsky’s infection proves that. Antibodies that prevent you from being infected are very specific for variants and last for only a short time. However, the cellular immunity boost that keeps you from getting seriously ill or dying from COVID is more general, will protect you broadly and lasts longer — at least 6 months to a year. This is the real point of being vaccinated at this time.
Currently, there are many examples of well-vaccinated people getting infected. But, the likelihood that they get sick, or die, or go on to have long COVID is much reduced after the vaccine.
The one thing we should stop doing is trying to chase whatever new SARS-CoV-2 virus that comes out with a new vaccine. The thought that it will provide long-term protection against being infected is not true at this point. The idea that people should be vaccinated every three or four months is not appropriate. As has been shown with this booster, if a new variant comes even in a few months, the vaccine will not keep you from being infected, but will keep you from getting seriously ill.
The good news is that in countries like France, where vaccination rates are high, the overall number of infections with new variants is low and less prominent than even the last wave with BA5.
All of this suggests that if the population continues to maintain its immunity through vaccination or infection, each wave of COVID-19 infection should become less prominent and eventually this disease will burn itself out.