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Coronavirus vaccine booster shots will be needed for years to come

Published Mar 15th, 2021 9:20PM EDT
Coronavirus Vaccine
Image: Sherry Young/Adobe

Nearly 360 million coronavirus vaccine doses had been administered as of Monday morning, with nearly 220 million people having received at least one jab so far. Vaccination campaigns have been ramping up in recent weeks, and vaccine supply should increase steadily in the coming months. That’s still not enough to beat the pandemic, as the percentage of vaccinated people needs to be well over 70% for herd immunity to be reached.

Supply issues, vaccine hesitancy, and the arrival of new strains that can reduce vaccine effectiveness can further hinder vaccination programs. Some of the mutations are also driving new surges, with a new wave expected to hit multiple countries soon. Also, the vaccine distribution inequality can negatively impact the vaccination effort. Health experts have already cautioned that countries that do not have access to vaccines can harbor the virus longer, allowing mutations to develop that might completely evade antibodies.

A recent interview with a health expert familiar with the way coronavirus behaves in terms of mutation makes it clear that, like the virus, COVID-19 vaccines are here to stay. People will need booster shots in the coming years so that protection against severe illness and death can remain active.

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The current vaccines can’t block infection, but they’re very effective at preventing potentially lethal complications. Studies from Israel and the UK have proven that the drugs work as intended, even against a more infectious strain like the UK mutation. Vaccine makers are already developing versions capable of neutralizing the South African variant, which can evade antibodies. The strain can reinfect survivors and reduce the effectiveness of vaccines. The Brazilian mutation is similarly dangerous.

Sharon Peacock told Reuters that regular booster vaccines will be needed as more mutations make the virus more transmissible and better able to evade immunity. Peacock leads the COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) effort to sequence the virus’s genomes. COG-UK has already sequenced nearly half of all the novel coronavirus genomes mapped globally, a further testament to the country’s advanced coronavirus genetics program.

“We have to appreciate that we were always going to have to have booster doses; immunity to coronavirus doesn’t last forever,” Peacock said. The question of COVID-19 immunity has yet to be fully answered. It’s unclear how long protection against reinfection lasts, although the most recent research indicates that survivors were still immune eight months after infection. Similarly, it’s unclear how long vaccine-induced immunity will last. The hopes are that protection can last at least one year, with some experts speculating that it might be even longer than that. Ongoing research projects should answer those questions in the coming years.

Peacock also said that “we already are tweaking the vaccines to deal with what the virus is doing in terms of evolution – so there are variants arising that have a combination of increased transmissibility and an ability to partially evade our immune response.” Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech independently confirmed they’re testing vaccination protocols for the South African strain, including updated vaccine versions.

The COG-UK head noted that the COVID-19 vaccine booster shots would be similar to flu vaccines. But the speed of vaccine innovation would allow researchers to develop new vaccine variants at a faster pace.

Peacock said that of the current mutations, she was worried primarily about the B.1.351 strain from South Africa, pointing out a particular genetic change. “It is more transmissible, but it also has a change in a gene mutation, which we refer to as E484K, which is associated with reduced immunity – so our immunity is reduced against that virus.”

Peacock’s teams are tracking so-called “constellations of mutations” that have particular traits in common, such as E484K, which “must be one of the top of the leaderboard.”

The novel coronavirus mutates once every two weeks, which might sound fast, but it’s much slower than the flu or HIV. It’s also important to note that coronavirus vaccines are more effective than flu vaccines.

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Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he closely follows the events in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises. Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.