The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines could protect the body against coronavirus for years, a new scientific study found.
Booster shots might not be needed for most people inoculated with either of the two vaccines, which create a persistent immune reaction in the body, The New York Times reported Monday.
Virus variants that evolve beyond their current forms could create a need for boosters in some recipients, though people who recovered from COVID-19 before being vaccinated might not need boosters even if the virus does make a significant transformation, the Times said.
"It's a good sign for how durable our immunity is from this vaccine," Ali Ellebedy, an immunologist at Washington University in St. Louis, told the Times.
Exactly how long mRNA vaccines could offer protection is hard to predict, the Times said. The absence of variants that sidestep immunity could mean it lasts a lifetime – though the virus continues to evolve.
Ellebedy led the study, which was published Monday in the journal Nature.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was not included in the study, but Ellebedy said he expected the immune response from that vaccine to be less durable than that produced by the mRNA vaccines, according to the Times.
Ellebedy's team found that the germinal center remained highly active 15 weeks after the first dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine in all 14 of the participants, and that the number of memory cells that recognized the coronavirus had not declined, the Times reported.
The germinal center is a specialized microstructure that forms in lymph nodes. It produces long-lived antibody secreting plasma cells and memory B cells.
After infection with the coronavirus, the germinal center forms in the lungs, the Times reported. Following vaccination, the cells' education takes place in lymph nodes in the armpits.
"The fact that the reactions continued for almost four months after vaccination — that's a very, very good sign," Ellebedy said, the Times reported.
"Usually by four to six weeks, there’s not much left," said Deepta Bhattacharya, an immunologist at the University of Arizona, according to the Times. Bhattacharya added that germinal centers stimulated by the mRNA vaccines are "still going, months into it, and not a lot of decline in most people."
Bhattacharya said most of what scientists know about the persistence of germinal centers is based on animal research, the Times reported. The new study is the first to show what happens in people after vaccination.
Immune cells that recognize the virus remained in the bone marrow for at least eight months after infection for people who have survived COVID-19, Ellebedy and his colleagues reported last month.
The Times reported that a study by another team indicated that so-called memory B cells continue to mature and strengthen for at least a year after infection.
Those findings have led researchers to suggest that immunity might last years, perhaps even a lifetime, in people who were infected and later vaccinated.
It remained unclear whether vaccination alone could have a similar effect.
Study findings said older adults, people with weak immune systems, and those who take drugs that suppress immunity might need boosters.
The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were the first to be given emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration late last year.
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