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.
There are at least 7 reasons why immunity after vaccination or infection with COVID-19 should likely be long-lived. If durable, I do not think boosters will be necessary in the future, despite CEOs of pharmaceutical companies (who stand to profit from boosters) messaging that they may and readying such boosters. To explain these reasons, let's orient ourselves to the main components of the immune system.
There are two major arms of the immune system: B cells (which produce antibodies) and T cells (which are formed specifically to attack and kill pathogens). T cells are divided into two types, CD4 cells ("helper" T cells) and CD8 cells ("cytotoxic" T cells).
Each arm, once stimulated by infection or vaccine, should hopefully make "memory" banks. So if the body sees the pathogen in the future, these defenses should come roaring back to attack the virus and protect you from getting sick. Plenty of research in COVID-19 indicates a likely long-lasting response to the vaccine or infection. Here are seven of the most compelling reasons:
REASON 1: Memory B Cells Are Produced By Vaccines and Natural Infection
In one study, 12 volunteers who had never had Covid-19--and were fully vaccinated with two Pfizer/BioNTech shots-- underwent biopsies of their lymph nodes. This is where memory B cells are stored in places called "germinal centers". The biopsies were performed three, four, six, and seven weeks after the first mRNA vaccine shot, and were stained to reveal that germinal center memory B cells in the lymph nodes increased in concentration over time.
Natural infection also generates memory B cells. Even after antibody levels wane over time, strong memory B cells were detected in the blood of individuals six and eight months after infection in different studies. Indeed, the half-lives of the memory B cells seen in the study examining patients 8 months after COVID-19 led the authors to conclude that "B cell memory to SARS-CoV-2 was robust and is likely long-lasting." Reason #2 tells us that memory B cells can be active for a very long time indeed.
REASON #2: Memory B Cells Can Produce Neutralizing Antibodies If They See Infection Again Decades Later
Demonstrated production of memory B cells after vaccination or natural infection with COVID-19 is so important because memory B cells, once generated, can be activated to produce high levels of neutralizing antibodies against the pathogen even if encountered many years after the initial exposure. In one amazing study (published in 2008), researchers isolated memory B cells against the 1918 flu strain from the blood of 32 individuals aged 91-101 years. These people had been born on or before 1915 and had survived that pandemic.
Their memory B cells, when exposed to the 1918 flu strain in a test tube, generated high levels of neutralizing antibodies against the virus -- antibodies that then protected mice from lethal infection with this deadly strain. The ability of memory B cells to produce complex antibody responses against an infection nine decades after exposure speaks to their durability.
REASON #3: Vaccines or Natural Infection Trigger Strong Memory T Cell Immunity
All of the trials of the major COVID-19 vaccine candidates measured strong T cell immunity following vaccination, most often assessed by measuring SARS-CoV-2 specific T cells in the phase I/II safety and immunogenicity studies. There are a number of studies that demonstrate the production of strong T cell immunity to COVID-19 after natural infection as well, even when the infection was mild or asymptomatic.
The same study that showed us robust memory B cell production 8 months after natural infection also demonstrated strong and sustained memory T cell production. In fact, the half-lives of the memory T cells in this cohort were long (~125-225 days for CD8+ and ~94-153 days for CD4+ T cells), comparable to the 123-day half-life observed for memory CD8+ T cells after yellow fever immunization (a vaccine usually given once over a lifetime).
A recent study of individuals recovered from COVID-19 show that the initial T cells generated by natural infection mature and differentiate over time into memory T cells that will be "put in the bank" for sustained periods.
REASON #4: T Cell Immunity Following Vaccinations for Other Infections Is Long-Lasting
Last year, we were fortunate to be able to measure how T cell immunity is generated by COVID-19 vaccines, which was not possible in earlier eras when vaccine trials were done for other infections (such as measles, mumps, rubella, pertussis, diphtheria). Antibodies are just the "tip of the iceberg" when assessing the response to vaccination, but were the only arm of the immune response that could be measured following vaccination in the past.
Measuring pathogen-specific T cell responses takes sophisticated technology. However, T cell responses, when assessed years after vaccination for other pathogens, has been shown to be long-lasting. For example, in one study of 56 volunteers who had undergone measles vaccination when they were much younger, strong CD8 and CD4 cell responses to vaccination could be detected up to 34 years later.
REASON #5: T Cell Immunity to Related Coronaviruses That Caused Severe Disease is Long-Lasting
SARS-CoV-2 is a coronavirus that causes severe disease, unlike coronaviruses that cause the common cold. Two other coronaviruses in the recent past caused severe disease, specifically Severely Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (SARS) in late 2002-2003 and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2011.
A study performed in 2020 demonstrated that the blood of 23 recovered SARS patients possess long-lasting memory T cells that were still reactive to SARS 17 years after the outbreak in 2003. Many scientists expect that T cell immunity to SARS-CoV-2 will be equally durable to that of its cousin.
REASON #6: T Cell Responses from Vaccination and Natural Infection With the Ancestral Strain of COVID-19 Are Robust Against Variants
Even though antibody responses from vaccination may be slightly lower against various COVID-19 variants of concern that have emerged in recent months, T cell immunity after vaccination has been shown to be unperturbed by mutations in the spike protein (in the variants). For instance, T cell responses after mRNA vaccines maintained strong activity against different variants (including P.1 Brazil variant, B.1.1.7 UK variant, B.1.351 South Africa variant and the CA.20.C California variant) in a recent study.
Another study showed that the vaccines generated robust T cell immunity that was unfazed by different variants, including B.1.351 and B.1.1.7. The CD4 and CD8 responses generated after natural infection are equally robust, showing activity against multiple "epitopes" (little segments) of the spike protein of the virus. For instance, CD8 cells responds to 52 epitopes and CD4 cells respond to 57 epitopes across the spike protein, so that a few mutations in the variants cannot knock out such a robust and in-breadth T cell response. Indeed, a recent paper showed that mRNA vaccines were 97.4 percent effective against severe COVID-19 disease in Qatar, even when the majority of circulating virus there was from variants of concern (B.1.351 and B.1.1.7).
REASON #7: Coronaviruses Don't Mutate Quickly Like Influenza, Which Requires Annual Booster Shots
Coronaviruses are RNA viruses, like influenza and HIV (which is actually a retrovirus), but do not mutate as quickly as either one. The reason that coronaviruses don't mutate very rapidly is that their replicating mechanism (polymerase) has a strong proofreading mechanism: If the virus mutates, it usually goes back and self-corrects. Mutations can arise with high rates of replication when transmission is very frequent -- as has been seen in recent months with the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 variants during surges. However, the COVID-19 virus will not be mutating like this when we tamp down transmission with mass vaccination.
In conclusion, I and many of my infectious disease colleagues expect the immunity from natural infection or vaccination to COVID-19 to be durable. Let's put discussion of boosters aside and work hard on global vaccine equity and distribution since the pandemic is not over until it is over for us all.
After COVID-19 was declared a worldwide pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020, life as we knew it altered dramatically and millions went into lockdown. Since then, most of the world has had to contend with masks, distancing, ventilation and cycles of lockdowns as surges flare up. Deaths from COVID-19 infection, along with economic and mental health effects from the shutdowns, have been devastating. The need for an ultimate solution -- safe and effective vaccines -- has been paramount.
On November 9, 2020 (just 8 months after the pandemic announcement), the press release for the first effective COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer/BioNTech was issued, followed by positive announcements regarding the safety and efficacy of five other vaccines from Moderna, University of Oxford/AztraZeneca, Novavax, Johnson and Johnson and Sputnik V. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have earned emergency use authorization through the FDA in the United States and are being distributed. We -- after many long months -- are seeing control of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic glimmering into sight.
To be clear, these vaccine candidates for COVID-19, both authorized and not yet authorized, are highly effective and safe. In fact, across all trials and sites, all six vaccines were 100% effective in preventing hospitalizations and death from COVID-19.
All Vaccines' Phase 3 Clinical Data
Complete protection against hospitalization and death from COVID-19 exhibited by all vaccines with phase 3 clinical trial data.
This astounding level of protection from SARS-CoV-2 from all vaccine candidates across multiple regions is likely due to robust T cell response from vaccination and will "defang" the virus from the concerns that led to COVID-19 restrictions initially: the ability of the virus to cause severe illness. This is a time of hope and optimism. After the devastating third surge of COVID-19 infections and deaths over the winter, we finally have an opportunity to stem the crisis – if only people readily accept the vaccines.
Amidst these incredible scientific advancements, however, public health officials and politicians have been pushing downright discouraging messaging. The ubiquitous talk of ongoing masks and distancing restrictions without any clear end in sight threatens to dampen uptake of the vaccines. It's imperative that we break down each concern and see if we can revitalize our public health messaging accordingly.
The first concern: we currently do not know if the vaccines block asymptomatic infection as well as symptomatic disease, since none of the phase 3 vaccine trials were set up to answer this question. However, there is biological plausibility that the antibodies and T-cell responses blocking symptomatic disease will also block asymptomatic infection in the nasal passages. IgG immunoglobulins (generated and measured by the vaccine trials) enter the nasal mucosa and systemic vaccinations generate IgA antibodies at mucosal surfaces. Monoclonal antibodies given to outpatients with COVID-19 hasten viral clearance from the airways.
Although it is prudent for those who are vaccinated to wear masks around the unvaccinated in case a slight risk of transmission remains, two fully vaccinated people can comfortably abandon masking around each other.
Moreover, data from the AztraZeneca trial (including in the phase 3 trial final results manuscript), where weekly self-swabbing was done by participants, and data from the Moderna trial, where a nasal swab was performed prior to the second dose, both showed risk reductions in asymptomatic infection with even a single dose. Finally, real-world data from a large Pfizer-based vaccine campaign in Israel shows a 50% reduction in infections (asymptomatic or symptomatic) after just the first dose.
Therefore, the likelihood of these vaccines blocking asymptomatic carriage, as well as symptomatic disease, is high. Although it is prudent for those who are vaccinated to wear masks around the unvaccinated in case a slight risk of transmission remains, two fully vaccinated people can comfortably abandon masking around each other. Moreover, as the percentage of vaccinated people increases, it will be increasingly untenable to impose restrictions on this group. Once herd immunity is reached, these restrictions can and should be abandoned altogether.
The second concern translating to "doom and gloom" messaging lately is around the identification of troubling new variants due to enhanced surveillance via viral sequencing. Four major variants circulating at this point (with others described in the past) are the B.1.1.7 variant ("UK variant"), B.1.351 ("South Africa variant), P.1. ("Brazil variant"), and the L452R variant identified in California. Although the UK variant is likely to be more transmissible, as is the South Africa variant, we have no reason to believe that masks, distancing and ventilation are ineffective against these variants.
Moreover, neutralizing antibody titers with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines do not seem to be significantly reduced against the variants. Finally, although the Novavax 2-dose and Johnson and Johnson (J&J) 1-dose vaccines had lower rates of efficacy against moderate COVID-19 disease in South Africa, their efficacy against severe disease was impressively high. In fact J&J's vaccine still prevented 100% of hospitalizations and death from COVID-19. When combining both hospitalizations/deaths and severe symptoms managed at home, the J&J 1-dose vaccine was 85% protective across all three sites of the trial: the U.S., Latin America (including Brazil), and South Africa.
In South Africa, nearly all cases of COVID-19 (95%) were due to infection with the B.1.351 SARS-CoV-2 variant. Finally, since herd immunity does not rely on maximal immune responses among all individuals in a society, the Moderna/Pfizer/J&J vaccines are all likely to achieve that goal against variants. And thankfully, all of these vaccines can be easily modified to boost specifically against a new variant if needed (indeed, Moderna and Pfizer are already working on boosters against the prominent variants).
The third concern of some public health officials is that people will abandon all restrictions once vaccinated unless overly cautious messages are drilled into them. Indeed, the false idea that if you "give people an inch, they will take a mile" has been misinforming our messaging about mitigation since the beginning of the pandemic. For example, the very phrase "stay at home" with all of its non-applicability for essential workers and single individuals is stigmatizing and unrealistic for many. Instead, the message should have focused on how people can additively reduce their risks under different circumstances.
The public will be more inclined to trust health officials if those officials communicate with nuanced messages backed up by evidence, rather than with broad brushstrokes that shame. Therefore, we should be saying that "vaccinated people can be together with other vaccinated individuals without restrictions but must protect the unvaccinated with masks and distancing." And we can say "unvaccinated individuals should adhere to all current restrictions until vaccinated" without fear of misunderstandings. Indeed, this kind of layered advice has been communicated to people living with HIV and those without HIV for a long time (if you have HIV but partner does not, take these precautions; if both have HIV, you can do this, etc.).
Our heady progress in vaccine development, along with the incredible efficacy results of all of them, is unprecedented. However, we are at risk of undermining such progress if people balk at the vaccine because they don't believe it will make enough of a difference. One of the most critical messages we can deliver right now is that these vaccines will eventually free us from the restrictions of this pandemic. Let's use tiered messaging and clear communication to boost vaccine optimism and uptake, and get us to the goal of close human contact once again.