PHOENIX — Now that three vaccines have gotten emergency use authorization, with the FDA and CDC currently taking a closer look at the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the conversation is shifting to vaccine boosters.
Our ABC15 Health Insider, Dr. Janice Johnston, medical director of Redirect Health, gives us some insight.
"Think about the flu virus," she explains. "Every year, we tweak the flu vaccine to adjust for the different variants. We've heard of H1N1 and different variants. Viruses are smart and they are going to adjust in order to promote themselves. That's basically something that we have known about for a long time. That's not new."
But what is new is COVID-19, barely a year old (that's why it was called the "novel coronavirus" when it was first discovered.)
Scientists are still trying to figure out how it behaves, but Dr. Johnston says the silver lining of all that research has been speeding up the use of mRNA vaccines like the Pfizer and Moderna shots.
"We’ve all seen the pictures of the COVID-19 molecule and it's got all those little spike proteins all over it. That's what these vaccines that we have are designed to produce -- these spike proteins, and our body attacks them. So, we're making our antibodies against these spike proteins. If the virus starts to mutate, then that can switch a little bit."
Although it's hard to nail down exactly how long it would take these manufactures to make a booster, Dr. Johnston feels confident that the mRNA technology could actually help speed things up.
"With the variants, I think time is going to tell in terms of how quickly. If it changes significantly, then we may need to look at changing the vaccine structure. The nice thing about the mRNA vaccine is that they can be tweaked pretty easily and so we can come up with a new booster to take care of these variants in short order, which I think is an amazing thing."
It's also important to remember this--every vaccine is different because every disease is different. That's why some vaccines, like tetanus, only require one dose every ten years while others only require one dose.
"There [are] different reasons that you may need a booster. One is that your immunity levels tend to dissipate over time. And so that's what we find with tetanus. It just seems to start going down and that's why we recommend that. With the polio vaccine, it seems to last. We give our kids the polio vaccine when they're young."
The mission of ABC15's Health Insider series is to dive deeper into the things impacting your health and the health of those around you. We're going in-depth with expert advice from people who know it, see it every day in their work and study it. Have a story idea? Contact the team at HealthInsider@abc15.com.