As it turns out, the two groups were different. The first Israelis to have received the vaccine tended to be more affluent and educated. By coincidence, these same groups later were among the first exposed to the Delta variant, perhaps because they were more likely to travel. Their higher infection rate may have stemmed from the new risks they were taking, not any change in their vaccine protection.
Statisticians have a name for this possibility — when topline statistics point to a false conclusion that disappears when you examine subgroups. It’s called Simpson’s Paradox.
This paradox may also explain some of the U.S. data that the C.D.C. has cited to justify booster shots. Many Americans began to resume more indoor activities this spring. That more were getting Covid may reflect their newfound Covid exposure (as well as the arrival of Delta), rather than any waning of immunity over time.
‘Where is it?’
Sure enough, other data supports the notion that vaccine immunity is not waning much.
The ratio of positive Covid tests among older adults and children, for example, does not seem to be changing, Dowdy notes. If waning immunity were a major problem, we should expect to see a faster rise in Covid cases among older people (who were among the first to receive shots). And even the Israeli analysis showed that the vaccines continued to prevent serious Covid illness at essentially the same rate as before.
“If there’s data proving the need for boosters, where is it?” Zeynep Tufekci, the sociologist and Times columnist, has written.
Part of the problem is that the waning-immunity story line is irresistible to many people. The vaccine makers — Pfizer, Moderna and others — have an incentive to promote it, because booster shots will bring them big profits. The C.D.C. and F.D.A., for their part, have a history of extreme caution, even when it harms public health. We in the media tend to suffer from bad-news bias. And many Americans are so understandably frightened by Covid that they pay more attention to alarming signs than reassuring ones.
The bottom line
Here’s my best attempt to give you an objective summary of the evidence, free from alarmism — and acknowledging uncertainty:
Immunity does probably wane modestly within the first year of receiving a shot. For this reason, booster shots make sense for vulnerable people, many experts believe. As Dr. Céline Gounder of Bellevue Hospital Center told my colleague Apoorva Mandavilli, the C.D.C.’s data “support giving additional doses of vaccine to highly immunocompromised persons and nursing home residents, not to the general public.”