antibodies

Why Don’t The COVID Vaccines Last Longer?

The FDA just authorized a second booster shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna coronavirus vaccines for people over 50 and the CDC has approved it. A second booster has already been approved in the U.K., Sweden, Israel and Denmark.

Why do we need a second booster only months after the first booster, which came only months after most of us received two jabs of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna mRNA vaccines? Are the vaccines not very good? After all, we get small pox or measles shots that last a lifetime. Others, like the vax for tetanus, last for ~10 years. Why can’t we get a more durable coronavirus vaccine?

The answer is complicated and largely rooted in both viral biology and vaccine immunology.

Viral biology. The simplest answer is that viral mutation can change the molecules the vaccine immune response is trained to recognize, causing vax immunity to decay as viruses mutate. The coronavirus vaccines are directed against the spike protein expressed on the original CoV-2 that first appeared in Wuhan, but that ancestral bug has spawned mutated progeny that look a bit different to the immune system. In other words, viral variants created by “antigenic drift” become less recognizable to the immune system. That is why the vaccines are somewhat less effective against the Omicron variant that carries numerous point mutations in its spike protein. The current vaccines are still pretty effective against current viral variants, but continued antigenic drift along with the selection of variants that can better avoid vaccine immunity will likely require new vaccines in the future.

So, why do we need new flu vaccines every year, and need frequent CoV-2 vaccines, but we don’t similarly need new measles vaccines? Measles, mumps, flu, COVID, and other diseases are caused by viruses, but the different viruses behave quite differently. Viruses carry relatively little genetic material that tends to mutate as they replicate and spread. Some viruses, like flu, also have a “segmented genome” meaning that their genetic material is carried on several separate genetic molecules, making it easy to shuffle their genomes like a deck of cards when different flu strains infect the same animal. Other pathogens carry all their genetic material on a single DNA or RNA molecule making such gene shuffling between strains less likely, but it still happens. Also, the mutation rate of a pathogen’s genome is a function of its replication rate; hence, each time a bug copies its genome, small random errors are inserted into its genetic code. The more the bug replicates, the more mutations will accumulate in its genome and the faster replicating bugs will more rapidly create new variants. Thus, the measles virus is pretty stable since it does not replicate as much as a coronavirus or a flu virus, so it is not surprising that vaccine immunity to measles is much more durable. Smallpox and polioviruses also have relatively low replication rates and vaccine immunity to them also is long-lasting. In contrast, flu and coronaviruses replicate rapidly and pass back and forth between humans and animals. This means that they mutate rapidly and need frequent vaccine updates.

Other vaccines, such as the TB vax, target bacteria not viruses. Bacteria carry larger genomes that are not so changeable, so anti-bacteria vaccines also are pretty long-lasting compared to many anti-viral vaccines.

Yet other vaccines, such as those against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis do not even target the pathogen at all, but target toxins produced by the bugs. Vaccinated people produce antibodies that neutralize the toxins and this prevents disease. These vaccines do not forestall infection, they simply prevent the ill effects of the pathogen. Therefore, for these toxoid vaccines, there is no immunological selective pressure to select pathogen variants that can avoid vax immunity. Vaccines against these toxins also tend to be among the longest-lived vaccines.

Vaccine immunology. Vaccines aim to mimic natural immunity we develop to infection with pathogens. By exposing the body to harmless imitations of a pathogen, vaccines create an immune response and immune memory against pathogens, while avoiding the disease caused by the bugs. When an infection does occur in a vaccinated person, a rapid and robust immune response is mounted, first with B-cell generated antibodies that latch onto the invaders and prevent them from spreading and causing illness. Then T-cells secret cytokines that further ramp up the inflammatory response, and other T cells attack pathogen-infected cells. As explained earlier in these pages, antibody responses tend to linger only a few weeks to a few months and then gradually decay. This is good; otherwise your blood serum would be like syrup from all the antibodies against all foreign things you encountered over your lifetime. While antibodies circulating in your blood are good for quickly attacking infections shortly after infection, they do not confer long-term immunity. What confers long-term protection is what are called memory cells. These are a relatively few T and B cells that go dormant after fighting an initial infection or responding to a vaccine, but hang around awaiting a new infection to signal them to quickly roar back to life and mount a vigorous response against their cognate pathogen. This secondary response to a previously seen pathogen is much faster and usually nips the bug in the bud so you don’t even know you were infected.

When we hear that CoV-2 immunity decays only a few months after vaccination, the reports usually refer to declining levels of anti-CoV-2 antibodies, which happens naturally. Such announcements do not take into account your immune memory, which is harder to measure, but which is a better metric of your long term immunity. The problem also is that we simply have not had enough time with the vaccines to know how long their immune memory persists. It seems relevant that a study published in July 2020 reported that people who were infected with SARS in 2003 maintained robust T cell immunity 17 years later. So far, indications are that even though antibody levels fall over time, immunological memory after vaccination also remains robust. This is seen by the continued protection from serious disease and death in vaccinated people with low antibody levels. The vaccines and the immune memory they stimulate are working. How long that memory persists is unknown. Time will tell.

So why are we getting the booster shots? In the face of a raging pandemic caused by a novel pathogen, the cautious approach is to keep antibody levels at a protective level in vaccinated people until we better understand the extent of long-term protection brought on by our immune memory. The boosters, therefore, represent a cautious approach to maintain an effective antibody defense during these still early months of a novel pandemic. We likely will reach a time where world-wide immunity from vaccination and natural infection will give us baseline protection that will render COVID-19 mostly a bothersome disease rather than a life threatening infection. Until then, the boosters are a good idea to help us maintain an effective antibody defense against serious disease.

The natural pathology of measles is instructive here. Even though antibody levels typically decline after most immunizations, antibodies produced after a measles vaccine persist for many years. This happens with some other, but not all, vaccines too, but why? In countries where the measles virus is endemic, repeated infection of vaccinated people keeps the antibody immune response in continual high gear. That is not the case with the flu virus which changes rapidly and bypasses last years shot. Interestingly, measles has been eradicated from the US and Western Europe, so vaccinated people are not continually exposed and re-exposed to the virus and, unlike for those who live in endemic areas, our anti-measles antibody levels decline. Therefore, our long-term protection against the virus is due to our immune memory and not due to antibody levels.

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Son Of Omicron

“A rose is a rose is a rose.” –Gertrude Stein

Omicron is Omicron is Omicron (except when it becomes something different).

Two-plus years into the pandemic, many Americans are ready to declare the COVID crisis over. But, we have been at this juncture before—at the end of the very first surge (remember “flattening the curve?”), and again as Delta faded. Each time, a new virus variant came roaring back. Why should it be different now?

There are reports of two new sons of Omicron circulating in the world. The original Omicron, or BA.1 has spawned BA.2 and BA.3. While little is known about BA.3 at this time, very early indications are that BA.2 represents an even more infectious variant of Omicron, and it is spreading around the world and the US. This variant of a variant seems to be about 30% more infectious than Omicron BA.1. It quickly overtook BA.1 in South Africa and other countries and has caused a second Omicron surge in Denmark. BA.2 has been detected in 74 countries, and has become dominant in at least 10 of them: Bangladesh, Brunei, China, Denmark, Guam, India, Montenegro, Nepal, Pakistan and the Philippines, according to the World Health Organization's weekly epidemiological report.

In the US, BA.2 has been reported in 47 states and accounts for ~4% of all new infections according to the CDC, and it appears to be doubling fast. Samuel Scarpino, director of pathogen surveillance at the Rockefeller Foundation says that if infections double again to 8%, we will be in another exponential growth phase, or the fifth wave of the pandemic. In other words, BA.2 seems to be quickly backfilling the vacuum left as BA.1 peters out.

While BA.2 clearly arose from BA.1, it carries dozens of additional gene changes, making BA.2 as distinct from BA.1 as the Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta variants were from each other. This suggests that BA.2 might soon be given its own unique Greek letter designation.

What does BA.2 augur? While vaccination and prior infection still appear to protect fairly well against BA.2, this variant still seems more adept at skirting the immune system then the original Omicron. An early report also shows that vaccine induced antibodies often fail to neutralize BA.2 in tissue culture, and that the virus better replicates than BA.1 in nasal epithelial cell cultures. Nevertheless, those who have been vaccinated and boosted are 74% less likely to become ill from BA.2.

Hopefully, this reduced immunity will still be enough to provide an immunological redoubt against extensive spread of BA.2. The best thing that could happen is that as we become increasingly immunized by vaccine and infection, it might be enough to continue the drop in BA.1 Omicron infections, and check any surge from the new BA.2 variant. This is speculation at this point, and one thing we have learned over the last 2+ years is that the virus does not often respond as expected.

Then there is this: Very preliminary laboratory data hint that BA.2 might cause more severe disease than BA.1, and it appears capable of foiling some of the key weapons we have against COVID-19. In initial lab studies, a Japanese team reported that BA.2 has structural features that might make it as virulent as Delta was. This prediction of increased virulence was supported by hamster infection experiments, but this has yet to be confirmed or refuted in real-life epidemiological studies. Rest assured, those studies are underway, so we will see.

BA.2 also is almost completely resistant to some COVID treatments, such as sotrovimab, a monoclonal antibody therapy that is currently used against Omicron.

Bottom line: During the Spanish flu, as people wearied of the social restrictions designed to prevent the spread of the virus (there were no vaccines or drugs for flu then), many pushed back against the restrictions, which led to premature relaxation of the mandates. Cities like Denver and Philadelphia, which lifted their mandates early paid a hefty price. Other cities like St. Louis, which took a more cautious approach were relatively unscathed. Let’s hope that we are not relaxing and entering a “control phase” too quickly.

What’s ahead of us is not COVID’s end, but might be the start of a phase in which we continue to invest in measures to continue to shrink the virus’s burden. Success in this is not entirely up to us. The virus will have a say too. Our future will depend both on the virus’s continued and unpredictable evolution and on our responses, both immunological and social. The goal is to get ahead of any new variants with wide spread immunity and a growing formulary of antibody and drug treatments, and, yes, this might also require renewed mandates.

A detailed report  looking at past suspected coronavirus pandemics (e.g., the Russian “flu”of 1889, which was probably a coronavirus) published last August in the journal Microbial Biotechnology, suggested plausible scenarios in which elevated levels of COVID-19 deaths could last another five years or longer. This of course depends on what happens to and after BA.2.

It probably is not quite time to relax all mask mandates or let up on the push to vaccinate.

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Lions And Tigers And…Deer? Oh My!

First it was bats and humans, then domestic cats and dogs, farmed mink, and big zoo cats; now gorillas, hippos, and wild deer that have been infected by the SARS-CoV-2 (CoV-2 for short) virus. Many of these animals have become ill and several have died of COVID-19, most recently three snow leopards in South Dakota and Nebraska zoos. This is quite a wanton virus.

Of course, before CoV-2 and COVID-19 were known to the world, we knew that bats, humans and a few other animals, notably civets and even camels, were ready hosts of several different strains of “‘rona” viruses. We also knew that domesticated animals are also susceptible to their own coronavirus diseases—in fact veterinary coronavirus vaccines have been in use for years. Humans are known hosts for several coronaviruses, including those that cause the common cold, as well as the viruses that cause SARS, MERS, and now COVID-19. And we know that humans often catch these germs from bats and other intermediate hosts as diverse as civets and camels. After we genetically identified CoV-2 and were able to follow its spread, we quickly noticed that domestic pets also could be infected. This was closely followed with news that seven big cats at the Bronx zoo had become infected, and that mink farms across Europe were hotbeds for CoV-2 spread between humans and the animals and back. In fact, mink farms became such a hotbed of CoV-2 zoonotic spread that a couple of European countries completely shut down mink farming and culled all their animals. Several US states have also sharply curtailed mink farming. PETA probably applauds.

More recently two snow leopards at the Lincoln, NE children’s zoo and one in a zoo in South Dakota died from COVID. The Lincoln zoo also had two infected Sumatran tigers who recovered after being treated with steroids and antibiotics to prevent secondary infections and pneumonia. How the animals were infected is uncertain, but the most likely scenario is that they caught the virus from a caretaker. The problem is, none of the caretakers tested positive for the virus. Bats? Something else?

Since April 2020, when a tiger tested positive at the Bronx Zoo, dozens of other animals in zoos around the world have caught COVID. This month, the Denver Zoo reported the first coronavirus cases in hyenas, and the St. Louis Zoo found eight positive cases among its big cats, including two snow leopards. Abroad, the virus has killed a lion in India and two tiger cubs in Pakistan. Big cats seem especially susceptible since three other snow leopards at the Louisville Zoo were infected last December, and another snow leopard tested positive at the San Diego Zoo in July. The virus doesn’t just infect our fuzzy friends either; two hippos, named Imani and Hermien, at a zoo in Antwerp recently tested positive for COVID-19. Zoo keepers were first alerted to a potential problem when they noticed that the colossi had “runny noses.”  One reckons that a runny nose for a hippo is a big deal. One also wonders who gets to dab that nasal maw in order to test for the virus.

In fact, zoo and domestic animal infections have become so prevalent that an animal COVID vaccine developed by Zoetis, a NJ-based veterinary pharma company and former Pfizer subsidiary, has been authorized by the USDA for experimental use. The Cincinnati Zoo, for one, has vaccinated  80 animals, from giraffes to apes, against COVID.

Deer too. Oh my! It is one thing for zoo animals to acquire COVID—their captivity makes it easy to limit their interaction with other animals and humans to prevent spread of contagions, and they seldom complain that their rights are being infringed when they are quarantined. However, COVID in wild animals is a different story, as we have seen with bats and how easily they transmit the virus to humans. Scientists now have evidence that CoV-2 also readily propagates in white-tailed deer. In fact, the virus is already widespread in cervids across the US, which likely has significant implications for the long-term course of this pandemic.

In September of last year, genetic analysis of the gene that encodes the ACE2 protein (i.e., the viral receptors expressed on many cells in the body) in many different animal species suggested that CoV-2 could easily infect deer (and several other animals too). A survey of white-tailed deer in the Northeast and Midwest found that 40% had antibodies against the CoV-2 virus, indicating prior exposure. Between April and December 2020, veterinarians at Penn State found active CoV-2 infections in ~30% of deer tested across Iowa. Then during the winter COVID surge in humans from Nov. 23, 2020, to Jan. 10 of this year, ~80% of the tested deer were infected. The prevalence of the virus in deer was 50 to 100 times greater than in Iowa residents at the time (and the deer reportedly did not wear face masks). The study, published about two months ago, indicates that white-tailed deer have become a permanent reservoir for CoV-2. While it is not fully understood how the virus entered the deer population, genetic sequence analysis of nearly 100 viral samples found that the variants circulating in deer matched the variants circulating in people. This suggests that deer caught the virus from people multiple times in Iowa alone. How that happens is not known since people usually do not have close contact with live deer. More concerning is whether viral variants arising in deer readily pass back to people.

Bottom line. Clearly, a lot of different animal species can catch Cov-2 and spread it. It is clear that people can spread coronaviruses to pets and other animals, but the FDA says that the reverse, animal-to-human virus transmission, is not common. But, it clearly happens as we have seen with this pandemic, and with many other viruses that cause SARS, MERS, AIDS, Ebola, flu, etc., that spread from animals to humans. The prevalence of CoV-2 infection in so many species of mammals, especially in animals that have close contact with humans, suggests that several animal species, not just bats, can serve as permanent reservoirs for the virus and the jump to humans is something that can happen over and over. This is not unprecedented. It is what we see with influenza, which is carried back and forth between the Northern and Southern hemispheres with migratory birds, in which different flu viruses shuffle their genomes to create the new strains of flu for which we have to vaccinate against each year. This animal reservoir for flu makes it next to impossible to eliminate influenza, and similar animal hosts for CoV-2 likely would make it nigh impossible to eliminate COVID too. I raised this specter some months ago in these pages when reporting that pet dogs and cats can carry the virus. Our furry friends represent a viral reservoir that is in even closer contact with people than bats, deer, and fortunately, hippos and leopards.

We also have to be worried about the CoV-2 virus mutating in the different animal species that harbor and spread it. We know that happens in bats, which makes it almost certain that new strains of the virus will arise in deer and dogs too. We have already seen this on mink farms in the Netherlands and Poland. Farmworkers passed the virus to captive animals where it spread, mutated, and then spilled back into humans. In fact, zoonotic transmission from animals to humans probably happens thousands of times a year. Researchers from the EcoHealth Alliance and from Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, estimate that each year many people are newly infected with SARS-related coronaviruses. Many may get sick, but there are many reasons why most of these infections never grow into noticeable outbreaks (for example see my earlier blog post about unusual respiratory infection clusters in China and Los Angeles just before COVID). The researchers also created a detailed map of Asian habitats of 23 bat species known to harbor SARS-related coronaviruses then overlaid it with data on where humans live to create a map of potential infection hot spots. They found that close to 500 million people live in areas where bat-to-human transfer is likely, and this risk is highest in southern China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Indonesia. Other surveys done before COVID-19 showed that many people in Southeast Asia harbor antibodies against other SARS-related coronaviruses. Blending these data with data on how often people encounter bats and how long antibodies remain in the blood, the researchers calculated that ~400,000 undetected human infections with these viruses occur each year across the region.

That is just for bat-to-human transfer in Southern Asia. It now looks like we will have to also concern ourselves with zoonotic coronavirus transfer from Buddy and Bambi too.

For this reason, researchers are working to develop a universal coronavirus vaccine that will be effective against most viral strains and variants. I will write about this soon. Stay tuned.

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Naturally Immune? You Still Better Get A Vaccine

Over 43 million Americans have reported cases of COVID-19. Many of them likely have some level of immunity that can be quite protective, even without vaccination. Even before vaccines were available, individuals who recovered from COVID-19 had detectable T-cell responses, and reinfections were rare, at least prior to the emergence of the more contagious Delta variant. This is what people refer to colloquially as “natural immunity,” to distinguish it from immunity conferred by vaccination. Some people claim that natural immunity is better and preferable to vaccine immunity and that a history of infection should count as much as being vaccinated when considering vaccine mandates. Is all this true? Well, like what we have seen and heard during the pandemic, a lot of truths have been spread, same with lies and disinformation. The story around natural immunity follows this pattern. Let me try to sort all this out here with a focus on whether previously infected people should consider getting vaccinated.

Natural infection can confer immunity to COVID. Like most viruses, previous infection with SARS-CoV-2 does confer immune protection against future re-exposure to the virus. Several peer-reviewed studies conducted in the early months of the pandemic, before vaccines were available, found that people previously infected were around 80% less likely to test positive for the virus during the next viral surge. These included studies of healthcare workers in the UK, the Danish population, and patients at the Cleveland Clinic, a large health system in Ohio and Florida.

Other data from the UK Office for National Statistics showed that between May and August 2021, a prior infection offered around the same level of protection against the Delta variant as vaccination. (Note that very recent and preliminary observations in South Africa suggest that infection with the new Omicron variant is high in people previously infected with other CoV-2 variants. However, since Omicron is so new and data on it are very sketchy at this time, this review will not further comment on this variant.)

A recent large Israeli study found that people who had been fully vaccinated with two Pfizer shots were 13 times more likely to later get infected with CoV-2 than those who had a prior infection. It also suggested that immunity from infection was longer lasting than that from vaccination. The study also showed that natural immunity plus the vaccine offered protection that was even stronger than either natural or vaccine immunity alone. This is one of the very few studies suggesting that natural immunity is better than vaccine immunity and has not been peer-reviewed. Furthermore, the subsequent rise of Delta since the end of this study confounds the issue a bit since Delta has been shown to be more infectious than the viruses the study subjects were exposed to. 

In the most recent review of the current scientific evidence by the CDC, they concluded that both fully vaccinated and those previously infected with the virus have a low risk of re-infection for at least six months, but that the two forms of immunity appear to have different strengths. Vaccination with mRNA vaccines produced higher concentrations of neutralizing antibodies—the type that prevent the virus from entering cells—than natural infection, although, over time, the antibody levels waned in both groups. However, long lasting immune memory conferred by natural infection appeared to be stronger than that conferred by vaccination.

Over time, immune B cells typically evolve to produce antibodies that better recognize an antigen, and an earlier study published in Nature found that antibodies produced by naturally immune memory B cells continued to evolve at least a year after infection. In contrast, antibodies produced by memory B cells in vaccinated people did not change much over time. This would suggest that over time, antibodies produced by natural immunity gain greater ability to respond to re-infection with the virus than antibodies produced by vaccination. One possible reason for this difference in the evolution of the anti-viral antibodies was that pieces of virus remain in the body for weeks after infection and continue to engage the immune cells, whereas vaccine lipid nanoparticles quickly fade away providing less immune stimulation. 

On the other hand, vaccine immunity might be better. So, as we have seen, a few reports suggest that natural immunity is superior to vaccine immunity. However, more studies suggest the opposite and even show that not everyone who catches COVID-19 will have effective immunity to re-infection. A CDC study reported that 36% of previously infected people did not form any antibodies against the virus. This is in stark contrast to antibody formation reported in 100% of people who received just one dose of an mRNA vaccine. Furthermore, the CDC reported in August that COVID survivors who went unvaxed were more than twice as likely as vaccinated people to get infected again contrasting with the Israeli study I mentioned earlier. Yet another CDC study looking at data from ~190 hospitals in nine states confirmed that unvaccinated people who survived an infection several months earlier were more than five times more likely to get COVID again than vaccinated people.

The reason that natural immunity might not always be effective is because the natural exposure to the virus is highly variable. People naturally infected are exposed to widely different doses of virus via different routes and possibly to different viral strains, all of which conspire to confer different degrees of protection. In contrast, vaccinated people receive standardized doses of the same viral antigen via the same route of exposure, making them more likely to develop a uniform degree of immunity. Researchers found that some people who had been infected had high antibody levels to the virus, while others had low levels, reflecting this variability in natural infection. This was substantiated by a new study from the University of Pittsburgh that also found that in many cases antibody levels from a prior infection are not high enough to protect people from getting sick again. Then, an Oxford study found that both long term T and B cell immune responses were highly variable in naturally immune people. The investigators took monthly samples of blood from infected subjects and measured their T and B cell responses over time. Interestingly, the variability in their responses was clearly identified as early as one-month post infection. Those with the weakest immunity at one month (25% of the subjects) had no detectable antibodies after six months. This contrasts to vaccine immunity, which does fade a bit over six months, but still remains consistently strong months after full vaccination. 

Finally, new evidence from an NIH-supported study from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle showed that antibodies from vaccinated people better recognized the mutated spike proteins from viral variants than antibodies from naturally immune people who had not been vaccinated. In other words, vaccinated people seem better able to respond to mutated spike proteins present in new viral variants.

The bottom line. In sum, while natural immunity can be effective, most evidence shows that vaccines typically give rise to consistently better antibody and long term T and B cell responses.

Having made this point, it is important to further note that a combination of both types of immunity, or so-called hybrid immunity, appears to be stronger than either alone. Researchers found that vaccination of naturally infected people boosted antibody and memory B cells to levels higher than seen in those with just either type of immunity. People with prior COVID-19 who received even one vaccine dose had half the risk of a breakthrough infection than unvaccinated people with prior COVID-19. Another study from researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine in New York found that a single dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines produced more antibodies in people who had previously had COVID-19 than two vax doses did in those who had never encountered the virus. It also found that people with prior infection report more unpleasant, but not serious side effects from vaccination. Vaccinating previously infected people also elicits important cross-variant neutralizing antibodies that better protect them against the known viral variants. Hybrid immunity also appears to work in the other direction: A study of vaccinated people who were then infected during a July 4 holiday weekend outbreak on Cape Cod found that they produced higher levels of antibodies and T-cells directed against the virus. In sum, vaccination helps those with natural immunity (and everyone they interact with) and vice versa

For these reasons, the CDC now recommends that people who have had COVID-19 be vaccinated because the shots plus natural immunity have been shown to offer better protection than natural immunity alone.