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Fact check: Do boosters help against omicron?

December 12, 2021

So far, 18.7 million people have received COVID-19 vaccine boosters in Germany. Will this help against the new coronavirus variant omicron? Will regular boosters be needed for full immunization? DW explores what we know.

A woman gets a booster shot in Nuremberg
More and more people are receiving boostersImage: Lukas Barth/REUTERS

Claim: Boosters do not protect against the new SARS-CoV-2 omicron variant.

DW fact check: Not proven

There is speculation in social networks that the new omicron variant is proof that COVID-19 vaccines, including booster shots, do not work.

But the fact is that — so far — there are only preliminary scientific findings available regarding the effect of COVID-19 vaccines against omicron. Virologists believe that boosters are an important tool to protect against the omicron variant.

Germany's new health minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) recently tweeted: "The data regarding the danger of the omicron variant are becoming increasingly clear. According to the findings that we have so far, boosters provide good protection — certainly against severe illness. Probably against infection too."

According to BioNTech-Pfizer, at least three doses of its COVID-19 vaccine will probably be needed for adequate protection against the omicron variant.

The immunologist Prof. Reinhold Förster, vice-president of the German Society for Immunology, expressed confidence in boosters. "We do not yet know whether their efficacy will also wane," he told DW. "But I would speculate that they will help to protect against infection much more than two shots only and that people will be protected from being a passive carrier of the virus for longer as well as be protected from severe disease for a long time."

A syrige and vial against a red backdrop with the word omicron in white
Omicron could soon become the dominant variant of the coronavirus in many countriesImage: Pavlo Gonchar/Zumapress/picture alliance

Claim: Boosters show the vaccination rollout has failed

DW fact check: False

One Twitter user said that this was the case in Israel. In a tweet dated December 6, he wrote: "Israel is beginning with the fourth mRNA injection within a year. Those who are still talking of 'success' and 'vaccination' have lost their minds and should turn to neutral, fact-based sources."

However, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that infection rates decreased in Israel after booster shots were introduced. It looked at the data of 1.3 million people aged 60 and above who had already received two shots. The risk of severe disease decreased by a factor of 11.3 in those participants who had received a booster dose.

According to Our World in Data, 44.35% of the Israeli population received a booster by December 11. In Germany, 22.5% of the population has received a booster by December 10, according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the country's public health agency.

"There is no question that the third vaccine, the booster, saved Israel," Gabriel Barbash from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel recently told DW.

He added that more contagious coronavirus variants have a dramatic negative impact on the fight against the disease and that the effect of the boosters would not last forever.

"When we started analyzing the new infections and then the infections based on when they were vaccinated, we came to understand that the most important issue is the waning of the vaccine immunity," he said. 

The RKI has also been observing the waning effect of vaccines. According to its most recent weekly report, protection against symptomatic COVID-19 waned in fully vaccinated people over the age of 18 from about 80% to just below 70%.

New German health minister Karl Lauterbach
Karl Lauterbach is the new German health minister Image: Adam Berry/Getty Images

Claim: Boosters mean continuous vaccination loop

DW fact check: False

On December 4, Alice Weidel, the co-chair of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) parliamentary group, warned against mandatory vaccination in a tweet: "Wringing his hands, Biontech founder Sahin explains that people who have already been vaccinated will have to get a shot against omicron. […] We have to get out of this insane continuous loop!"

The fact is that in Germany, vaccination is not currently required for anyone. The parliament approved a vaccine mandate for health workers starting in mid-March 2022. Most virologists recommend boosters (see above). A UK-funded study, entitled Safety and immunogenicity of seven Covid-19 vaccines as a third dose (booster), also found that a third dose of the vaccine increased immunogenicity in the 2,878 participants aged 30 to 78 who took part.

The study "investigated the reactogenicity and immunogenicity of seven different COVID-19 vaccines as a third dose" to people who had received either the AstraZeneca or BioNTech-Pfizer vaccines as their first two doses.

Ask Derrick: Booster for variants

The study found that immune response was always higher, regardless of the age of the participants and regardless of which of the seven vaccines they had received. Only the inactivated vaccine developed by the French company Valneva did not always meet clinical standards.

In addition to boosters, some people are setting their hopes on new drugs in development to treat COVID-19 patients. The European Medicines Agency and the US Food and Drug Administration have already approved a number of these, including Ronapreve, which was jointly developed by the Swiss company Roche and the US company Regeneron, as well as Regkirona (Regdanvimab) developed by the South Korean firm Celltrion. The US also just approved an antibody drug developed by AstraZeneca for people with serious health problems or allergies. 

"Drugs that prevent the virus from multiplying could be a way out of the pandemic," said Reinhold Förster from the German Society for Immunology, but he also warned that "different drugs" would probably have to be used in conjunction "to target different parts of the mechanism of viral replication." 

This article was originally written in German.