Like a sinister game of Whac-A-Mole, every time one COVID-19 conspiracy theory is debunked, another emerges anew. The latest conspiracy theory making the rounds in anti-vaccine social media circles is the idea that multiple COVID-19 boosters somehow destroy the immune system.
The claim resurfaced last week, likely due to recent news about targeted omicron booster shots possibly coming this fall. As Salon previously reported, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advised manufacturers to reformulate booster shots to specifically protect against the BA.4 and BA.5 omicron variants earlier this month- this. A video doing the rounds, a news anchor said European Union regulators are warning that frequent booster shots of COVID-19 could have a negative effect on the immune system.
So, is there any truth here – or is this just another episode of anti-vaccine misinformation?
While the context in which the video was shared appears as recent news, the allegation dates back to January 2022, when experts from the European Medicines Agency (EMA) argued at a press conference that COVID-19 booster shots should not be administered too close together. The video is an excerpt from when Bloomberg Quicktake Now reported on the conference.
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“We’re more concerned about a strategy that tangles short-term repeat vaccination; we can’t really continuously give a booster dose every 3 or 4 months,” said Marco Cavaleri, biothreat strategy lead for health and vaccines during the EMA press briefing. in January 2022. “If we have a strategy where we give boosters, say every 4 months or so, we will end up potentially having a problem with the immune response, and the immune response may end up not being as good as we we’d do it like it was.”
As Cavaleri noted during the press conference, there were hypothetical concerns about multiple recalls for several reasons. One concern was that booster makers are likely to play a constant game of catching up with the next variant, which might not make them as effective as they could be. Then there is the risk that the general public will tire of the need for reshoots.
“There is a risk of tiring the population with the continuation of the administration of reminders,” Cavaleri said.
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Notably, Cavaleri has never advocated giving boosters, nor questioned the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines. He rather supported the idea of issuing boosters, but in a more spread out period.
“It would be much better to start thinking about administering more spaced out reminders,” Cavaleri said. “Ideally, if you want to move into an endemicity scenario, then these boosters should be timed with the onset of the cold season in each of the hemispheres, similar to how we do with the flu vaccine.”
“There is no evidence that repeated boosters weaken the immune system,” Dr. Monica Gandhi told Salon. “In fact, this important paper shows that any exposure or recall actually expands and diversifies the T-cell memory repertoire (e.g. expands your immune response).”
Yet Cavaleri’s January remarks have been repeatedly decontextualized to fit an anti-vaccine agenda and scare the public into not getting reminders. Currently, about half of vaccinated Americans have received a single booster. Only a quarter of eligible boosted people over the age of 50 received a second one. This new misinformation, that boosters will “destroy” or “ruin” a person’s immune system, has been perpetuated by anti-vaccine talking heads like Robert Malone and Alex Jones.
Still, experts say the idea that “too many” boosters will ruin people’s immune systems isn’t true. In fact, boosters do the exact opposite.
“There is no evidence that repeated boosters weaken the immune system,” Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease physician and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told Salon via email. “In fact, this important paper shows that any exposure (breakthrough infection) or recall actually expands and diversifies the T-cell memory repertoire (e.g. expands your immune response).”
Gandhi pointed to a second paper published in Nature that suggests exposure to the virus or a booster shot can help a person’s immune system be better prepared to respond to new subvariants.
“Repeated boosters seem to provide enhanced protection, and they actually seem to broaden the immune response,” William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told Salon. “And that broadening is important, because you get better coverage against variants.”
Schaffner added that a booster, in general, “does what the name suggests”. In other words, it strengthens the immune system – it does not weaken it.
“It reminds the immune system to become active again, and the immune system creates the protection – the antibodies – and does so in an enhanced way,” Schaffner said. “It does it better than before – that’s what the booster is designed for – so you get more antibodies and you get a broader representation of antibodies.”
In the case of COVID-19 vaccines, recalls were necessary for two reasons, Schaffner said. The first being that the virus has mutated, which may reduce the effectiveness of the initial vaccine. The second reason is that immunity decreases after several months, according to several studies.
“It’s a virus that’s very different from, for example, the measles virus. The measles virus is very stable, it doesn’t mutate, and once you’re safely vaccinated against measles, you’re protected for life,” Schaffner said. . “The whole group of coronaviruses is a different family, and their immune response is not as long-lasting as against measles.”
Finally, Schaffner added that COVID-19 vaccines presented as a two-dose series, plus a booster, were a “misnomer.”
“We first said, ‘oh, the COVID vaccines are a two-dose vaccine,’ and then we’ll get a booster,” Schaffner said. “The vaccines were really a three-dose vaccine, so don’t dwell on the name.”
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