When the world's first Covid-19 vaccine received regulatory approval in November, it appeared that the end of the pandemic might be near. As one by one, the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Sputnik V vaccines reported successful Phase III results, the prospect of life without lockdowns and restrictions seemed a tantalizing possibility.
But for scientists with many years' worth of experience in studying how viruses adapt over time, it remained clear that the fight against the SARS-CoV-2 virus was far from over. "The more virus circulates, the more it is likely that mutations occur," said Professor Beate Kampmann, director of the Vaccine Centre at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. "It is inevitable that new variants will emerge."
Since the start of the pandemic, dozens of new variants of SARS-CoV-2 – containing different mutations in the viral genome sequence - have appeared as it copies itself while spreading through the human population. The majority of these mutations are inconsequential, but in recent months, some mutations have emerged in the receptor binding domain of the virus's spike protein, increasing how tightly it binds to human cells. These mutations appear to make some new strains up to 70 percent more transmissible, though estimates vary and more lab experiments are needed. Such new strains include the B.1.1.7 variant - currently the dominant strain in the UK – and the 501Y.V2 variant, which was first found in South Africa.
"I'm quite optimistic that even with these mutations, immunity is not going to suddenly fail on us."
Because so many more people are becoming infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus as a result, vaccinologists point out that these new strains will prolong the pandemic.
"It may take longer to reach vaccine-induced herd immunity," says Deborah Fuller, professor of microbiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine. "With a more transmissible variant taking over, an even larger percentage of the population will need to get vaccinated before we can shut this pandemic down."
That is, of course, as long as the vaccinations are still highly protective. The South African variant, in particular, contains a mutation called E484K that is raising alarms among scientists. Emerging evidence indicates that this mutation allows the virus to escape from some people's immune responses, and thus could potentially weaken the effectiveness of current vaccines.
What We Know So Far
Over the past few weeks, manufacturers of the approved Covid-19 vaccines have been racing to conduct experiments, assessing whether their jabs still work well against the new variants. This process involves taking blood samples from people who have already been vaccinated and assessing whether the antibodies generated by those people can neutralize the new strains in a test tube.
Pfizer has just released results from the first of these studies, declaring that their vaccine was found to still be effective at neutralizing strains of the virus containing the N501Y mutation of the spike protein, one of the mutations present within both the UK and South African variants.
However, the study did not look at the full set of mutations contained within either of these variants. Earlier this week, academics at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle suggested that the E484K spike protein mutation could be most problematic, publishing a study which showed that the efficacy of neutralizing antibodies against this region dropped by more than ten-fold because of the mutation.
Thankfully, this development is not expected to make vaccines useless. One of the Fred Hutch researchers, Jesse Bloom, told STAT News that he did not expect this mutation to seriously reduce vaccine efficacy, and that more harmful mutations would need to accrue over time to pose a very significant threat to vaccinations.
"I'm quite optimistic that even with these mutations, immunity is not going to suddenly fail on us," Bloom told STAT. "It might be gradually eroded, but it's not going to fail on us, at least in the short term."
While further vaccine efficacy data will emerge in the coming weeks, other vaccinologists are keen to stress this same point: At most, there will be a marginal drop in efficacy against the new variants.
"Each vaccine induces what we call polyclonal antibodies targeting multiple parts of the spike protein," said Fuller. "So if one antibody target mutates, there are other antibody targets on the spike protein that could still neutralize the virus. The vaccine platforms also induce T-cell responses that could provide a second line of defense. If some virus gets past antibodies, T-cell responses can find and eliminate infected cells before the virus does too much damage."
She estimates that if vaccine efficacy decreases, for example from 95% to 85%, against one of the new variants, the main implications will be that some individuals who might otherwise have become severely ill, may still experience mild or moderate symptoms from an infection -- but crucially, they will not end up in intensive care.
"Plug and Play" Vaccine Platforms
One of the advantages of the technologies which have been pioneered to create the Covid-19 vaccines is that they are relatively straightforward to update with a new viral sequence. The mRNA technology used in the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, and the adenovirus vectors used in the Astra Zeneca and Sputnik V vaccines, are known as 'plug and play' platforms, meaning that a new form of the vaccine can be rapidly generated against any emerging variant.
"With a rapid pipeline for manufacture established, these new vaccine technologies could enable production and distribution within 1-3 months of a new variant emerging."
While the technology for the seasonal influenza vaccines is relatively inefficient, requiring scientists to grow and cultivate the new strain in the lab before vaccines can be produced - a process that takes nine months - mRNA and adenovirus-based vaccines can be updated within a matter of weeks. According to BioNTech CEO Uğur Şahin, a new version of their vaccine could be produced in six weeks.
"With a rapid pipeline for manufacture established, these new vaccine technologies could enable production and distribution within 1-3 months of a new variant emerging," says Fuller.
Fuller predicts that more new variants of the virus are almost certain to emerge within the coming months and years, potentially requiring the public to receive booster shots. This means there is one key advantage the mRNA-based vaccines have over the adenovirus technologies. mRNA vaccines only express the spike protein, while the AstraZeneca and Sputnik V vaccines use adenoviruses - common viruses most of us are exposed to - as a delivery mechanism for genes from the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
"For the adenovirus vaccines, our bodies make immune responses against both SARS-CoV-2 and the adenovirus backbone of the vaccine," says Fuller. "That means if you update the adenovirus-based vaccine with the new variant and then try to boost people, they may respond less well to the new vaccine, because they already have antibodies against the adenovirus that could block the vaccine from working. This makes mRNA vaccines more amenable to repeated use."
One of the key questions remains whether regulators would require new versions of the vaccine to go through clinical trials, a hurdle which would slow down the response to emerging strains, or whether the seasonal influenza paradigm will be followed, whereby a new form of the vaccine can be released without further clinical testing.
Regulators are currently remaining tight-lipped on which process they will choose to follow, until there is more information on how vaccines respond against the new variants. "Only when such information becomes available can we start the scientific evaluation of what data would be needed to support such a change and assess what regulatory procedure would be required for that," said Rebecca Harding, communications officer for the European Medicines Agency.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did not respond to requests for comment before press time.
While vaccinologists feel it is unlikely that a new complete Phase III trial would be required, some believe that because these are new technologies, regulators may well demand further safety data before approving an updated version of the vaccine.
"I would hope if we ever have to update the current vaccines, regulatory authorities will treat it like influenza," said Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. "I would guess, at worst, they may want a new Phase 1 or 1 and 2 clinical trials."
Others suggest that rather than new trials, some bridging experiments may suffice to demonstrate that the levels of neutralizing antibodies induced by the new form of the vaccine are comparable to the previous one. "Vaccines have previously been licensed by this kind of immunogenicity data only, for example meningitis vaccines," said Kampmann.
While further mutations and strains of SARS-CoV-2 are inevitable, some scientists are concerned that the vaccine rollout strategy being employed in some countries -- of distributing a first shot to as many people as possible, and potentially delaying second shots as a result -- could encourage more new variants to emerge. Just today, the Biden administration announced its intention to release nearly all vaccine doses on hand right away, without keeping a reserve for second shots. This plan risks relying on vaccine manufacturing to ramp up quickly to keep pace if people are to receive their second shots at the right intervals.
"I am not very happy about this change as it could lead to a large number of people out there with partial immunity and this could select new mutations, and escalate the potential problem of vaccine escape."
The Biden administration's shift appears to conflict with the FDA's recent position that second doses should be given on a strict schedule, without any departure from the three- and four-week intervals established in clinical trials. Two top FDA officials said in a statement that changing the dosing schedule "is premature and not rooted solidly in the available evidence. Without appropriate data supporting such changes in vaccine administration, we run a significant risk of placing public health at risk, undermining the historic vaccination efforts to protect the population from COVID-19."
"I understand the argument of trying to get at least partial protection to as many people as possible, but I am concerned about the increased interval between the doses that is now being proposed," said Kampmann. "I am not very happy about this change as it could lead to a large number of people out there with partial immunity and this could select new mutations, and escalate the potential problem of vaccine escape."
But it's worth emphasizing that the virus is unlikely for now to accumulate enough harmful mutations to render the current vaccines completely ineffective.
"It will be very hard for the virus to evolve to completely evade the antibody responses the vaccines induce," said Fuller. "The parts of the virus that are targeted by vaccine-induced antibodies are essential for the virus to infect our cells. If the virus tries to mutate these parts to evade antibodies, then it could compromise its own fitness or even abort its ability to infect. To be sure, the virus is developing these mutations, but we just don't see these variants emerge because they die out."
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”