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How Long Does Booster Shot Protection Last? Will It Better Protect Against New Variants?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) - As thousands of Minnesotans line up to get their first COVID-19 booster shot, talks of a second booster as early as this spring are underway.

We wanted to know: How long does booster shot protection last? Will it better protect against new variants?

Jeff Wagner talked with one of the top doctors to learn how often we'll need to roll up our sleeves this year.

Amidst the hustle across Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport's Terminal 2 is a daily effort to better protect people from an unrelenting virus. Several people were getting their booster shot Monday afternoon.

How long does booster shot protection last?

"I'd say probably a few months," guessed Lexei Wuorenma after getting her booster shot.

"I hope it lasts three months or more," said Miluska Novota.

"I think we are just playing this day by day like everyone else," added Mary Drewews.

Dr. Michael Osterholm, the infectious disease director at the University of Minnesota, gave an answer people likely didn't want to hear.

"The question is how long will that protection last, we're not sure," Osterholm said. "At this point, we will continue to do studies monitoring people to see both when their antibody levels drop, but also more importantly in the community, when do we see potential breakthrough infections occurring. At what stage following your immunization and your previous infectious status does that happen?"

What have we learned in the past year about the level of protection someone gets from those first two doses of the vaccine, especially now that Omicron is surging?

"Those first two doses are actually very important beginning the building process in your immune system. But they're hardly adequate," Osterholm said.

COVID-19 Booster Vaccine
(credit: CBS)

That's where the booster shot, or the third dose immune-compromised people received in the fall, comes into play.

"[The booster] then takes the immune system status to a whole new level," he said.

But what about an additional level on top of that?

Moderna's CEO said last week that they're working on a second booster shot that would be available in the coming months.

Osterholm doesn't think a second booster will be recommended for everyone. He also doesn't anticipate a routine of people getting a booster twice a year. The focus now is on maximizing protection by creating better vaccines.

The first route: modifying the current vaccine to be based on the Omicron variant and not the original strain. Moderna's CEO said they're developing a vaccine in that way to be available this year.

The second route: creating a new vaccine that helps our immune system fight different strains of COVID-19 as they emerge. Osterholm said the current vaccine creates a B cell response, or antibodies to the virus. The new version would create a T cell response, which he said have stronger and longer term effectiveness to better protect against new variants.

"That is going to be a long-term process. That's not going to happen overnight but it's one that we need to start right now," Osterholm said.

It's been roughly a year since the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine were released, a drug that was developed so quickly it was initially given Emergency Use Authorization by the FDA.

WCCO asked Osterholm how he feels about the current pace in developing boosters and new COVID-19 vaccines.

"When 1,500 people a day are dying, when our healthcare systems are literally breaking, no longer just bending, nothing can be fast enough," he said. "Nothing."

Even with a booster shot, doctors say there's no guarantee a person won't catch the virus. It does however make symptoms more mild and better prevent hospitalizations.

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