Exclusive to WSJ News | Covid-19 immunity wanes, but a third shot is still rarely needed, says BioNTech CEO

BERLIN – Immunity to the coronavirus declines in people fully vaccinated with the injection of BioNTech SE and Pfizer Inc.

PFE 0.51%

in January because of the rapidly spreading Delta variant, the CEO of BioNTech said, confirming the data that emerged from Israel last week.

But even if antibody levels drop among some vaccine recipients seven months after immunization, most of them will remain protected against serious illness and may not need a third dose, according to Ugur Sahin, CEO of the German company that invented the vaccine and a enter into a partnership. with Pfizer to develop the product for the global market.

“The antibody titers are dropping,” said Dr. Sahin, referring to the unit of measurement for antibodies to the virus. “The vaccine protection against the new variant is significantly lower.”

dr. Sahin made the comments after preliminary data emerged from Israel showing that people who received the injection in January were three times more likely to become infected than those who were vaccinated in May.

dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a White House briefing Thursday that vaccines provide a high degree of protection against infection, serious illness and death from the Delta variant.

Governments should now decide whether to give a third shot to boost immunity or allow controlled infection to occur in people who have been vaccinated, knowing they are unlikely to experience life-threatening symptoms, says Dr. said Sahin.

The BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine, based on the so-called messenger RNA technology, generates a dual immunity against the coronavirus: protection against infection, which is provided by antibodies, and protection at the cellular level, training so-called memory cells to identify the virus defense mechanisms that destroy the pathogen when it enters the body.

The weakening of the first line of defense — the antibodies — meant vaccinated people could become reinfected, but there was no evidence that their cellular immunity declined, as most infections wouldn’t end in serious illness, said Dr. sahin.

Preliminary data published last week by the Israeli Ministry of Health showed that after two injections, the vaccine was 39% effective in reducing the risk of infection and 40% effective in reducing the risk of symptomatic disease over a period of time. in which the Delta variant was responsible for most cases. The vaccine was 91% effective in preventing serious illness in the same period between June 20 and July 17, the ministry said.

Israel has already started offering a third dose to immunocompromised individuals this month, and government experts are investigating whether a dose is needed for the wider population.

Unlike Pfizer, who advocates a third dose, Dr. Sahin that he would not give public advice on whether or not to use a third injection, a so-called booster, and that he would only interpret data if it comes from real life. studies such as those in Israel.

“This debate must go on without us: we will only provide data and governments will have to tell us what they want,” he said.

dr. Sahin said ideally the vaccine, which is currently only sold to governments, would be approved for wide use and become available on the market for private purchase. At present, the shot is only authorized for emergency use in the West, meaning governments must decide whether to make a third shot available to their citizens.

“When the vaccine becomes available on the free market, everyone will be able to make this decision for themselves,” said Dr. sahin.

Companies are working on booster shots for the coronavirus as some early research suggests that antibody levels against Covid-19 decline over time, making boosters more necessary. We are investigating what that means for individual consumers. Illustration: Laura Kammermann/The Wall Street Journal

Write to Bojan Pancevski at bojan.pancevski@wsj.com

Copyright © 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

Appeared in the July 26, 2021 print edition as ‘BioNTech CEO unsure about third dose’.