Background: Booster COVID-19 vaccines have shown efficacy in clinical trials and effectiveness in real-world data against symptomatic and severe illness. However, some people still become infected with SARS-CoV-2 following a third (booster) vaccination. This study describes the characteristics of SARS-CoV-2 illness following a third vaccination and assesses the risk of progression to symptomatic disease in SARS-CoV-2 infected individuals with time since vaccination. Methods: This prospective, community-based, case-control study used data from UK-based, adult (≥18 years) users of the COVID Symptom Study mobile application, self-reporting a first positive COVID-19 test between June 1, 2021 and April 1, 2022. To describe the characteristics of SARS-CoV-2 illness following a third vaccination, we selected cases and controls who had received a third and second dose of monovalent vaccination against COVID-19, respectively, and reported a first positive SARS-CoV-2 test at least 7 days after most recent vaccination. Cases and controls were matched (1:1) based on age, sex, BMI, time between first vaccination and infection, and week of testing. We used logistic regression models (adjusted for age, sex, BMI, level of social deprivation and frailty) to analyse associations of disease severity, overall disease duration, and individual symptoms with booster vaccination status. To assess for potential waning of vaccine effectiveness, we compared disease severity, duration, and symptom profiles of individuals testing positive within 3 months of most recent vaccination (reference group) to profiles of individuals infected between 3 and 4, 4–5, and 5–6 months, for both third and second dose. All analyses were stratified by time period, based on the predominant SARS-CoV-2 variant at time of infection (Delta: June 1, 2021–27 Nov, 2021; Omicron: 20 Dec, 2021-Apr 1, 2022). Findings: During the study period, 50,162 (Delta period) and 162,041 (Omicron) participants reported a positive SARS-CoV-2 test. During the Delta period, infection following three vaccination doses was associated with lower odds of long COVID (symptoms≥ 4 weeks) (OR=0.83, CI[0.50–1.36], p < 0.0001), hospitalisation (OR=0.55, CI[0.39–0.75], p < 0.0001) and severe symptoms (OR=0.36, CI[0.27–0.49], p < 0.0001), and higher odds of asymptomatic infection (OR=3.45, CI[2.86–4.16], p < 0.0001), compared to infection following only two vaccination doses. During the Omicron period, infection following three vaccination doses was associated with lower odds of severe symptoms (OR=0.48, CI[0.42–0.55], p < 0.0001). During the Delta period, infected individuals were less likely to report almost all individual symptoms after a third vaccination. During the Omicron period, individuals were less likely to report most symptoms after a third vaccination, except for upper respiratory symptoms e.g. sneezing (OR=1.40, CI[1.18–1.35], p < 0.0001), runny nose (OR=1.26, CI[1.18–1.35], p < 0.0001), sore throat (OR=1.17, CI[1.10–1.25], p < 0.0001), and hoarse voice (OR=1.13, CI[1.06–1.21], p < 0.0001), which were more likely to be reported. There was evidence of reduced vaccine effectiveness during both Delta and Omicron periods in those infected more than 3 months after their most recent vaccination, with increased reporting of severe symptoms, long duration illness, and most individual symptoms. Interpretation: This study suggests that a third dose of monovalent vaccine may reduce symptoms, severity and duration of SARS-CoV-2 infection following vaccination. For Omicron variants, the third vaccination appears to reduce overall symptom burden but may increase upper respiratory symptoms, potentially due to immunological priming. There is evidence of waning vaccine effectiveness against progression to symptomatic and severe disease and long COVID after three months. Our findings support ongoing booster vaccination promotion amongst individuals at high risk from COVID-19, to reduce severe symptoms and duration of illness, and health system burden. Disseminating knowledge on expected symptoms following booster vaccination may encourage vaccine uptake.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)506-515
Number of pages10
JournalThe Journal of infection
Issue number6
Early online date28 Sept 2023
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2023


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