by Betty Yu and Molly McCrea

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — With one in four Californians now at least partly vaccinated against COVID-19, questions are surfacing about the durability of the vaccine and how long will it protect the recipient from the virus.

Some people are also wondering what, if anything, can be done to boost their response to the vaccine.

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UCSF scientists hope to find out and add to the growing body of scientific evidence. They are currently enrolling volunteers to help them better understand these important areas of inquiry.

To date, no one knows how long these COVID-19 vaccines will provide protection. Some experts believe the vaccine is good for at least six months and probably longer, but it is still too soon to tell.

Another added variable: the virus is changing, with new variants emerging.

“We are in a race against these variants,” noted Dr. David Kessler, who heads up the vaccine effort for the Biden Administration

Scientists know that not everybody responds equally well to the same vaccine.

“We’ve learned a lot about how vaccines work, but they don’t work the same for everyone,” said Dr. Aric Prather, a psychologist at UCSF and a specialist in insomnia.

Just how well these vaccines work, and for how long, may depend on the subject’s immune system and whether it has been compromised or weakened.

“It’s possible that those who are getting insufficient sleep or are excessively exposed to stress without the resilience factors are going to have a real decline in their antibody response,” noted Dr. Elissa Epel, a UCSF professor and Department of Psychology Vice Chair.

Dr. Prather and Dr. Epel are gathering data on the vaccine’s durability. Their goal is to identify what may impact an otherwise robust antibody response to the COVID-19 vaccine.

“We’re all so concerned right now with getting the vaccine and surviving this acute epidemic. But if we can’t maintain these antibodies, we’ll be looking at scenarios of flare ups, and needing more booster shots,” explained Dr. Epel.

The team is collecting blood from volunteers before and after their first COVID-19 vaccine for a study known as BOOST.

In the blood, scientists are not just measuring antibodies; they’re also looking at immune cells and searching for something called a telomere.

“They’re like the little protective tip at the end of a shoelace,” said UCSF’S Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn.

In 2009, Dr. Blackburn was one of the scientists who won the Nobel Prize in 2009 for the discovery of telomeres,

Telomeres are clumps of DNA at the ends of chromosomes. They protect our chromosomes from damage. When it comes to telomeres, length matters.

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“Telomere length has been related to how well the immune system is holding up,” explained Dr. Blackburn.

The longer the telomere, the better the protection.

“The longer they are, the more our immune cells are able to replicate themselves and robustly fight antigens,” said Dr. Epel.

As to what shortens telomeres: older age, lack of sleep, even chronic stress. Volunteers who participate in the study keep a diary and fill out periodic surveys about what’s going on with their lives.

“It was really very simple,” said Nancy, a volunteer for the BOOST study.

Nancy told KPIX she joined the study to help scientists better understand novel viruses, and to identify ways to bolster our immune response.

“You know the more we learn about how our bodies can produce antibodies after getting a vaccine, how well those antibodies are going to perform over time, I think it’s really important to find out,” she said.

As for the telomeres, you can lengthen them by sleeping more, eating a healthy diet, exercising and meditating to reduce stress.

“We know a lot about how to improve people’s level of stress,” explained Dr. Prather.

In the meantime, experts say everyone should get vaccinated when eligible.

Research shows the mindset of the person receiving the vaccine plays a role in the reaction. Studies indicate negative feelings can result in a weaker immune response to a flu shot.

As a way to improve response, it is suggested that before you receive a COVID-19 vaccine you get a good night’s sleep and walk in feeling positive. Volunteers are still welcome for the BOOST study, especially those who are 65 and older. There is a $300 compensation for those who are eligible to participate.

More information:

Learn about the study here.

Sign up for BOOST study here.

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