Pfizer Couldn’t Pay for Marketing This Good

On June 3, 2021, a roughly 60-year-old man in the riverside city of Magdeburg, Germany, received his first COVID vaccine. He opted for Johnson & Johnson’s shot, popular at that point because unlike Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines, it was one-and-done. But that, evidently, was not what he had in mind. The following month, he got the AstraZeneca vaccine. The month after that, he doubled up on AstraZeneca and added a Pfizer for good measure. Things only accelerated from there: In January 2022, he received at least 49 COVID shots.

A few months later, employees at a local vaccination center thought to themselves, Huh, wasn’t that guy in here yesterday? and alerted the police. By that point, the German Press Agency reported, the man had been vaccinated as many as 90 times. And still he was not done. As of November, he said he’d received 217 COVID shots—217!

That’s according to a new paper published in The Lancet. After German researchers learned of the man from newspaper articles, they managed to contact him via the public prosecutor investigating the case. He was “very interested” in participating in a study Kilian Schober, an immunologist at Uniklinikum Erlangen and a co-author on the paper said in a statement. They pieced together his vaccination timeline through interviews and medical records, and collected blood and saliva samples to examine the immunological effects of “hypervaccination.”

The man’s identity hasn’t been revealed, and in the paper he’s referred to only as “HIM” (seemingly an acronym, though what it stands for is not specified). He is hardly the world’s only hypervaccinated person. A retired postman in India had reportedly received 12 shots by January 2022 and told The New York Times, “I still want more.” A New Zealand man, meanwhile, allegedly racked up 10 in a single day. But pause for a moment and consider the sheer logistics of HIM’s feat. In all, he received his 217 vaccinations over the course of just under two and a half years, which comes out to an average of seven and a half shots a month, although the distribution was far from even. For several weeks in early 2022, he received two shots nearly every day. He seems to have had a strong preference for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, but he also got at least one shot of AstraZeneca and Sanofi-GSK and, of course, Johnson & Johnson.

Why? you might wonder. The paper itself elides this question, saying only that he did so “deliberately and for private reasons.” Perhaps the most obvious explanation would be extreme, probably pathological COVID anxiety. News reports from April 2022 offer another possible explanation: that he did so to sell the vaccination cards. But German prosecutors did not bring charges once HIM’s scheme was uncovered, and he continued getting unnecessary shots.

Getting 217 COVID shots is very much not the public-health guidance in Germany or anywhere else. Yet the strategy seemingly panned out: HIM has never contracted COVID, researchers concluded based on antigen tests, PCR tests, and bloodwork. “If you ask immunologists, we might have predicted that it would be not beneficial to do this,” Cindy Leifer, an immunologist at Cornell University who wasn’t involved with the Lancet study, told me. They might have expected the constant action to exhaust the immune system, leaving it vulnerable to actual viral threats. But such worries came to nothing.

Still, immunologists cautioned against inferring any strong causal connection. He avoided the virus; he got vaccinated 217 times. He did not necessarily avoid the virus because he got vaccinated 217 times. In fact, the authors wrote, although hypervaccination seems to have increased the quantity of antibodies and T cells that HIM’s body produced to fend off the virus—even after 216 shots, the 217th still produced a modest increase—it had no real effect on the quality of the immune response. “He would have been just as well protected if he had gotten a normal number of three to four vaccinations,” Schober told me.

Nor did hypervaccination lead to any adverse effects. By shot 217, one might have expected to see some of the rare side effects associated with the vaccines, such as myocarditis, pericarditis, or Guillain-Barré Syndrome, but as far as researchers could tell, HIM was completely fine. Remarkably, he didn’t even report feeling minor side effects from any of his 217 shots. On some level, this makes total sense: As Schober reasonably pointed out, HIM probably would not have gotten all those shots if each one had knocked him out for a day. Fair, but still: 217 shots and no side effects? How?

If nothing else, HIM is one hell of an advertisement for the vaccines. Worried about side effects from your third booster? Well, this guy’s gotten more than 200, and he’s a-okay. Travis Kelce has been called Mr. Pfizer, but he’s got nothing on HIM. Scientifically, things are somewhat murkier. The results of the HIM study were largely unsurprising, researchers told me, but the mysteries at the margins—such as the absence of any side effects—are a good reminder that four years after the pandemic began, immunology is still, as my former colleague Ed Yong wrote, “where intuition goes to die.”

At the end of the paper, the authors are very clear: “We do not endorse hypervaccination as a strategy to enhance adaptive immunity.” The takeaway, Leifer said, should not be the more shots, the better. Schober told me he even tried to personally convey this message to HIM after his 216th shot. “From the bottom of my heart as a medical doctor, I really told him that he shouldn’t get vaccinated again,” Schober said.

HIM seemed to take this advice seriously. Then he went and got shot No. 217 anyway.