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.
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.”