But there’s another piece of the immunity puzzle that scientists are urgently trying to solve, and that is whether some of this drop off in our protection may be a result of the mRNA technology used to build some Covid-19 vaccines, such as those developed by Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, which were the first in the world to use this platform.
“Some vaccine platforms give a very high degree of protection but the durability isn’t very long,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in an interview with CNN.
Fauci said that the mRNA platform may be one of those.
In clinical trials, the new mRNA vaccines have proven to be astonishingly good at protecting people against illness, hospitalizations and deaths, at least in the short term. Fauci said mRNA vaccines have other advantages, too. It’s relatively fast and easy to redesign them to better protect against new variants, for example.
“We got a really great platform with mRNA,” Fauci said. “But let’s try to be better. Because our experience, maybe it’s peculiar to coronavirus, but I doubt it, is that the durability of the response you can be better on.”
‘We’ve got to get better platforms’
To be fair, Fauci said we won’t know how long immunity induced by these kinds of vaccines may last until mRNA is used to make vaccines against a different type of pathogen, perhaps one that doesn’t change as much as SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.
Definitive answers may be years away.
In the meantime, he said, we can’t wait. We need to improve the vaccines if we’re going to keep Covid-19 at bay.
“We have very good vaccines, but we’ve got to get better platforms and immunogens, maybe with adjuvants that allow us to have a greater durability of protection,” Fauci said. Adjuvants are extra ingredients in vaccines that help them work better.
Other experts agree.
Deepta Bhattacharya heads a lab at the University of Arizona where he studies the lifespan of plasma cells, a type of long-lasting cell that makes protective antibodies. He’s also interested in how various vaccine technologies influence the persistence of these cells in our bodies.
What we can tell after more than a year of experience with the mRNA vaccines is that their protection starts high but seems to fade more quickly than the immunity that remains after a Covid-19 infection, according to Bhattacharya.
“There have been a few side-by-side studies that have compared the mRNA vaccines to infection-induced immunity, and it seems like it slips a little bit faster than that,” Bhattacharya said.
Though he cautioned that protection after an infection varies greatly from person to person just because everyone’s immune system is a little different. There’s no good way to know, right now, how well any particular person’s immune system responds to a vaccine, which is why it’s important to be vaccinated, even if you’ve already had Covid-19.
He added that when comparing the performance of the mRNA vaccines to adenoviral vector vaccines, such as those developed by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, people initially make a lot more antibodies after vaccination with an mRNA vaccine, but these levels seem to fall pretty steeply by around the six-month mark. Adenovirus vaccines use another virus as a Trojan horse to sneak instructions for making the spike proteins into cells.
With the adenoviral vector vaccines, antibody levels don’t seem to climb as high initially as they do with mRNA vaccines, but they do seem to persist for longer periods at these lower levels, pointing to some difference in the body’s response to them that we don’t fully understand.
In a large study of more than 35,000 health care workers in the United Kingdom, compared to those who were unvaccinated, those who had two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccine were about 85% less likely to get a Covid-19 infection, through about two and a half months after their second dose. But by six and a half months, that protection against infection had fallen to about 51%.
The follow up period for the study was between December 7, 2020, when the vaccines were first given to healthcare workers in the UK to Sept. 21, 2021, so it doesn’t include Omicron infections.
Health care workers with two doses of the Astrazeneca adenoviral vector vaccine were about 58% less likely to get a Covid-19 infection compared to those who were unvaccinated, through about two and a half months after vaccination, but the effectiveness of that vaccine appeared to increase over time, cutting the risk of infection by more than 70% about seven months after a second dose.
Health care workers who caught a Covid-19 infection, most of them happening in March 2020, before the era of vaccines, were initially about 86% less likely to be reinfected, and that protection lasted up to a year. After a year, it dropped to about 69% in workers who were unvaccinated, which was still better than the protection from mRNA vaccines alone.
Workers who had caught Covid-19 and went on to be vaccinated had the best protection of all, more than a 90% lower risk of getting Covid-19 again, and that combined protection stayed high for the duration of the study, which was more than 9 months.
This evidence and other studies, said Bhattachayra, suggests our immunity against Covid can be tweaked to make it last longer.
“I do think it’s fair to ask more of our vaccines and that they sort of maintain that protection for longer,” Bhattachayra said.
“I think there’s still very clearly room for improvement because there are certain vaccines that do better” in terms of their durability, he said. “There’s no question about that.”
Other vaccines have needed improvements to help them last longer
Starting at two months of age, doctors recommend that babies get a vaccine against Haemophilus influenzae, or Hib, a common bacteria that can cause serious infections if it invades the lungs, blood or brain. These bacteria are coated with chains of sugars, or polysaccharides, that help mask them to our immune systems.
In the 1980s, scientists figured out that you could use those sugar chains to build a vaccine to protect children from serious infections.
“The initial Hib vaccine was a polysaccharide vaccine, but it did not induce long-lived antibody levels, so we don’t even use it now,” said Dr. Gregory Poland, an infectious disease expert who studies how the immune system responds to vaccines at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
Today’s Hib vaccine still contains the sugar chains, but they are linked to protein pieces that stimulate a different part of the immune system to better remember the bacteria. It’s called a protein conjugate vaccine.
Another example of a vaccine that didn’t ultimately provide long-lasting immunity was the pneumococcal vaccine for pneumonia. It, too, started life as a polysaccharide vaccine, but was changed to a protein conjugate after researchers determined that change could extend its protection.
Some vaccines use extra ingredients, called adjuvants, to hyperstimulate the immune system, which increases the strength of the protection people get from them. These kinds of vaccines are often used for older adults and others whose immune systems need an extra kick in the pants, so to speak, to work.
Certain vaccines inherently do this, just because of the way they are designed, Fauci said, and the nanoparticles being built into some experimental vaccines are an example of this.
Fauci added that he’s not sure why the immune response triggered by mRNA vaccines may not be longer lasting. He has some theories, though.
One of the early failures in developing the mRNA technology was that when the chains of molecules called nucleic acids were injected into animals, they triggered an immune response too quickly. The animals got sick and their immune systems destroyed these chains — or instructions — before cells could read them and build the proteins they coded for.
One breakthrough in turning these instructions into vaccines was that the scientists who developed them figured out how to make a chemical change to the mRNA to hide it from the immune system until it could get inside cells, thus, reducing the risk of getting sick.
“They modified the molecule to remove the inflammatory aspect of it, to allow it to be used as a vaccine, that possibly–and I underlined 15 times, possibly–could be reason why,” Fauci said.
“Maybe if we use this mRNA, but add a different adjuvant with it, you might get a really good response, the best of both worlds, you might get the real advantage of an mRNA together with a bit more durability, if you add to it an adjuvant as opposed to having the molecule itself be inherently adjuvant.”
Bhattachyra has another theory about why the mRNA platform may not be lasting as long.
He said these vaccines instruct cells to build spike proteins from the virus and then display them on their surfaces, where they can be seen by the immune system.
But cells are giant compared to viruses — about 100 times larger, he said, and viruses pack about 25 spike protein trimers onto their smaller surface, making them pretty densely packed. A trimer is a type of chemical compound or molecule that has three pieces.
“I don’t know what the density of spike proteins is on a cell; it may not be as high as what it is on a virus, for instance,” Bhattachyra said. No one really knows what the spike-expressing cells look like and how closely they resemble the virus they’re targeting.
“It could be that the spacing is pretty infrequent and you’re just not getting the level of activation that you would want,” he said, adding “that’s pure speculation.”
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This is where I found the above.
From the Department of Are You Fucking Kidding Me*
CNN just ran a piece explaining that “scientists are urgently trying to solve” the question of whether the endless waves of Covid we now have “may be a result of the mRNA technology used to build some Covid-19 vaccines.”
Not making this up:
Oh? You don’t say? Now “scientists” are “urgently trying” to figure out if the “mRNA technology” is the problem and not the solution?
Maybe they can urgently try to build a time machine too, or an unvaccine machine.
The article also includes this gem, from Dr. Anthony Fauci:
Oh, Tony! T-Dog! Allow me to translate:
I’m not saying it doesn’t work it at all, okay? Not out loud. I’d be absolutely insane to say that out loud after telling A BILLION PEOPLE TO TAKE IT. I’m just saying it could be better. And by better I mean actually work. But I didn’t say that.
(A subscribe now button, please excuse)
And finally this:
Yes, apparently we’ll “need to administer booster shots… [or] rollout an entirely new vaccine altogether”?
What you’re seeing here is the first steps toward an official acknowledgement that the mRNA vaccines have failed and new vaccines are coming sooner or later.
Booster shots? Remember, booster shots are available everywhere now. SECOND booster shots are available everywhere. And despite endless badgering from media and public health authorities, uptake has been close to zero for months.
The side effects are at least as bad with the third and fourth doses as the original two – that is, worse than Covid for many if not most people – and everyone knows the shots will not stop anyone from getting Covid in any case.
Thus the booster campaigns will be allowed to molder, probably within months. The White House will excuse the failure of the vaccines as a failure of public opinion, claiming that “mRNA vaccine hesitancy has risen to unsustainable levels,” or some such, and that we need new vaccine technology. (By new I mean old, most likely.) They may even be cynical enough to blame those of us who were right all along for said hesitancy.
The great mRNA experiment will come to an end, not with a bang but with 200 million expired doses in freezers. The most likely but by no means certain outcome is: zero long-term benefit, zero to some long-term harm, and $100 billion-plus for Pfizer and the gang.
Heads science wins, tails you lose:
This has been The Pandemic’s Wrongest Man, an occasional series!