Since the Delta variant became predominant in the United States on July 7, both scientists and the media alike have been full of mixed messages ("breakthrough infections rare"; "breakthrough infections common"; "vaccines still work"; "vaccines losing their effectiveness") but – if we remember our infectious diseases history- one thing remains clear: immunity is the only way to get through a pandemic.
What Happened in the Past
The 1918 influenza pandemic was far the deadliest respiratory virus pandemic recorded in recent human history with over 50 million deaths (maybe even 100 million deaths, or 3% of the world's population) worldwide. Although they used some of the same measures we are using now (masks, distancing, event closures, as neither testing nor a vaccine existed back then), the deaths slowed only after enough of the population had either acquired immunity through natural infection or died. Indeed, the first influenza vaccine was not developed until 1942, more than 20 years later. As judged by the amount of suffering and death from 1918 influenza (and the deadly Delta surge in India in spring 2021), natural immunity is obviously a terrible way to get through a pandemic.
Similarly, measles was a highly transmissible respiratory virus that led to high levels of immunity among adults who were invariably exposed as children. However, measles led to deaths each year among the nonimmune until a vaccine was developed in 1963, largely restricting current measles outbreaks in the U.S. now to populations who decline to vaccinate. Smallpox also led to high levels of immunity through natural infection, which was often fatal. That's why unleashing smallpox on a largely nonimmune population in the New World was so deadly. Only an effective vaccine – and its administration worldwide, including among populations who declined smallpox vaccine at first via mandates – could control and then eventually eradicate smallpox from Earth.
Fully vaccinated people are already now able to generate some antibodies against all the variants we know of to date, thanks to their bank of memory B cells.
The Delta variant is extremely transmissible, making it unlikely we will ever eliminate or eradicate SARS-CoV-2. Even Australia, which had tried to maintain a COVID-zero nation with masks, distancing, lockdowns, testing and contact tracing before and during the vaccines, ended a strategy aimed at eliminating COVID-19 this week. But, luckily, since highly effective and safe vaccines were developed for COVID-19 less than a year after its advent on a nonimmune population and since vaccines are retaining their effectiveness against severe disease, we have a safe way out of the misery of this pandemic: more and more immunity. "Defanging" SARS-CoV-2 and stripping it of its ability to cause severe disease through immunity will relegate it to the fate of the other four circulating cold-causing coronaviruses, an inconvenience but not a world-stopper.
Immunity Is More Than Antibodies
When we say immunity, we have to be clear that we are talking about cellular immunity and immune memory, not only antibodies. This is a key point. Neutralizing antibodies, which prevent the virus from entering our cells, are generated by the vaccines. But those antibodies will necessarily wane over time since we cannot keep antibodies from every infection and vaccine we have ever seen in the bloodstream (or our blood would be thick as paste!). Vaccines with shorter intervals between doses (like Pfizer vaccines given 3 weeks apart) are likely to have their antibodies wane sooner than vaccines with longer intervals between doses (like Moderna), making mild symptomatic breakthroughs less likely with the Moderna vaccine than the Pfizer during our Delta surge, as a recent Mayo Clinic study showed.
Luckily, the vaccines generate B cells that get relegated to our memory banks and these memory B cells are able to produce high levels of antibodies to fight the virus if they see it again. Amazingly, these memory B cells will actually produce antibodies adapted against the COVID variants if they see a variant in the future, rather than the original antibodies directed against the ancestral strain. This is because memory B cells serve as a blueprint to make antibodies, like the blueprint of a house. If a house needs an extra column (or antibodies need to evolve to work against variants), the blueprint will oblige just as memory B cells will!
One problem with giving a 3rd dose of our current vaccines is that those antibodies won't be adapted towards the variants. Fully vaccinated people are already now able to generate some antibodies against all the variants we know of to date, thanks to their bank of memory B cells. In other words, no variant has evolved to date that completely evades our vaccines. Memory B cells, once generated by either natural infection or vaccination, should be long-lasting.
If memory B cells are formed by a vaccine, they should be as long-lasting as those from natural infection per various human studies. A 2008 Nature study found that survivors of the 1918 influenza pandemic were able to produce antibodies from memory B cells when exposed to the same influenza strain nine decades later. Of note, mild infections (such as the common cold from the cold-causing coronaviruses called 229E, NL63, OC43, and HKU1) may not reliably produce memory B cell immunity like more severe infections caused by SARS-CoV-2.
Right about now, you may be worrying about a super-variant that might yet emerge to evade all our hard-won immune responses. But most immunologists do not think this is very realistic because of T cells. How are T cells different from B Cells? While B cells are like the memory banks to produce antibodies when needed (helped by T cells), T cells will specifically amplify in response to a piece of the virus and help recruit cells to attack the pathogen directly. We likely have T cells to thank for the vaccine's incredible durability in protecting us against severe disease. Data from La Jolla Immunology Institute and UCSF show that the T cell response from the Pfizer vaccine is strong across all the variants.
Think of your spike protein as being comprised of 100 houses with a T cell there to cover each house (to protect you against severe disease). The variants have around 13 mutations along the spike protein so 13 of those T cells won't work, but there are over 80 T cells remaining to protect your "houses" or your body against severe disease.
Although these are theoretical numbers and we don't know exactly the number of T cell antigens (or "epitopes") across the spike protein, one review showed 1400 across the whole virus, with many of those in the spike protein. Another study showed that there were 87 epitopes across the spike protein to which T cells respond, and mutations in one of the variants (beta) took those down to 75. The virus cannot mutate indefinitely in its spike protein and still retain function. This is why it is unlikely we will get a variant that will evade the in-breadth, robust response of our T cells.
Where We Go From Here
So, what does this mean for getting through this pandemic? Immunity and more immunity. For those of us who are vaccinated, if we get exposed to the Delta variant, it will boost our immune response although the memory B cells might take 3-5 days to make new antibodies, which can leave us susceptible to a mild breakthrough infection. That's part of the reason the CDC put back masks for the vaccinated in late July. For those who are unvaccinated, immunity will be gained from Delta but often through terrible ways like severe disease.
The way for the U.S. to determine the need for 3rd shots among those who are not obviously immunocompromised, given the amazing immune memory generated by the vaccines among immunocompetent individuals, is to analyze the cases of the ~6000 individuals who have had severe breakthrough infections among the 171 million Americans fully vaccinated. Define their co-morbidities and age ranges, and boost those susceptible to severe infections (examples could include older people, those with co-morbidities, health care workers, and residents of long-term care facilities). This is an approach likely to be taken by the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.
If immunity is the only way to get through the pandemic and if variants are caused mostly by large populations being unvaccinated, there is not only a moral and ethical imperative but a practical imperative to vaccinate the world in order to keep us all safe. Immunocompetent Americans can boost their antibodies, which may enhance their ability to avoid mild breakthrough infections, but the initial shots still work well against the most important outcomes: hospitalizations and deaths.
There has been no randomized, controlled trial to assess whether three shots vs. two shots meaningfully improve those outcomes. While we ought to trust immune memory to get the immunocompetent in the United States through, we can hasten the end of this pandemic by providing surplus vaccines to poor countries to combat severe disease. Doing so would not only revitalize the role of the U.S. as a global health leader – it would save countless lives.
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 40th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms had begun with leg cramps and foot drop in late fall 2017. At the end of life, he could only move a few fingers on his left hand and could not speak or eat by mouth; a feeding tube became necessary, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she adds, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” said Bedlack, who is also chief of neurology at the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He adds that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he notes, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. 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 and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby