COVID vaccines and what they mean for senior communities - Part 2
How long will the immunity provided by the new COVID vaccines last? Should we be concerned about the new COVID strain found in the UK?
Prof. Martin Hibberd, Professor of Emerging Infectious Disease, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, sat down with Enviral Tech on December 21 to answer 12 of the most pressing questions about the COVID-19 vaccines and what they mean for the senior care community. This is part 2 of our conversation with Dr. Hibberd. (Read part 1 here)
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
How long do we expect the immunity from the COVID vaccines to last?
This is a new vaccine, it was just introduced. We don't know how long the current vaccine is going to last for. We know it works for a month, but until people have added two months, we don't know if it lasts that long. For the other coronaviruses, you're talking about a year or two, and during that year, if we don't vaccinate enough people, there might be escaped mutants, just like we detect in the UK, which have been selected for by the environment that they found themselves in. So we might have to do it all again. If you look at influenza or all the other coronaviruses, these viruses change over time. As soon as we introduce this vaccine, the virus is going to most likely respond to it. We might need a new vaccine next year.
We don't know how long the immunity from the vaccine lasts, so we need to remain vigilent and keep testing to protect our most vulnerable populations.
Will the making of a new COVID-vaccine be faster next time?
Yes. These first vaccines, these RNA vaccines are a wonderful technology which we've never had the opportunity of using previously. It's been around, people had been working on this for a long time, but not really utilized. And it's amazing. Actually for the two vaccines that have come through, both of these approaches are able to adapt the vaccine pretty quickly to new virus strains. The [more common] types of vaccines, adenovirus vaccines for example, are a bit more tricky to adapt to new virtual strains.
Why are the RNA vaccines technology has been available before, yet the COVID-19 vaccines are the first of this kind. Why is that?
You know, there's been a lot of vested interest in established companies that make the vaccines to all the current viruses using more established technology. And if it works, why fix it? But the opportunity was that this new virus came out, which did not have any vaccine against it. That leveled the playing field. And actually the RNA vaccine technology has shown us that they can do it faster than anyone else. And that's actually why they got to the market first. It was a plain field and they could compete with everything.
We’ve noticed that some people don't stop shedding once they're done being sick with COVID-19. What do we know about how long people can continue to shed the virus?
You can detect the virus for longer than those 10-14 days [after remission] and by PCR, and not necessarily by the other tests. So we do know that PCR can detect these small pieces of the virus, that are not infectious virus particles. So for most people, probably the infectious period is less than the detection period. However, for some people it's not the case. There are currently some people that can remain infected for much longer.
With the new strain of the virus that is now in the UK, which is apparently even more transmittable, more sticky, does that change the perspective on how efficient the vaccine would be?
Yes, sticky is a good word for it, since this new strain seems to bind to its receptor on [human cells] a little bit better. That is probably the mechanism that allows it to have increased infectivity. Although to be honest, we still don't really know the answer to that yet. It's just an observation at the moment.
What does the new COVID strain mean in terms of protection measures?
What that means is that the protections measures that we have been utilizing may not be sufficient for this new strain. And that is what we've observed in the areas where the virus is transmitting. Our normal lockdown rules haven't helped sufficiently to reduce the numbers."
Does this mean that even after vaccination, we need to keep the level of restrictions pretty high, at least at the beginning, until we can figure out a better solution?
Yes. I think you have to keep testing until the number of cases have dropped. We expect the vaccine to induce that drop in numbers, but until we observe that, we have to be aware.
We have to keep testing until the number of cases have dropped
Where does this new strain come from?
Unusually, this virus has several mutations in it compared to the original China version. There are several mutations combined together, and it might be that two or three of them were needed in order to increase transmissibility by increasing the stickiness of the virus, but possibly increasing the viral titer [number of viral particles in an infected person].
Martin Hibberd is a Professor of Emerging Infectious Diseases in the department of Pathogen Molecular Biology, at the London School Of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. He is also a leading expert in the UK Public Health Rapid Support Team, and Associate Director and Senior Group Leader for the Infectious Disease group at the Genome Institute of Singapore. Pr. Hibberd also has adjunct positions at the National University of Singapore School of Public health and at the Sanger Genome Institute.