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Latest on Omicron Variant and COVID-19 Vaccine Protection

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

Graph. People with two shots and booster. 25 times more protection from Omicron
Credit: Adapted from Pfizer, Dec. 8, 2021

There’s been great concern about the new Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. A major reason is Omicron has accumulated over 50 mutations, including about 30 in the spike protein, the part of the coronavirus that mRNA vaccines teach our immune systems to attack. All of these genetic changes raise the possibility that Omicron could cause breakthrough infections in people who’ve already received a Pfizer or Moderna mRNA vaccine.

So, what does the science show? The first data to emerge present somewhat encouraging results. While our existing mRNA vaccines still offer some protection against Omicron, there appears to be a significant decline in neutralizing antibodies against this variant in people who have received two shots of an mRNA vaccine.

However, initial results of studies conducted both in the lab and in the real world show that people who get a booster shot, or third dose of vaccine, may be better protected. Though these data are preliminary, they suggest that getting a booster will help protect people already vaccinated from breakthrough or possible severe infections with Omicron during the winter months.

Though Omicron was discovered in South Africa only last month, researchers have been working around the clock to learn more about this variant. Last week brought the first wave of scientific data on Omicron, including interesting work from a research team led by Alex Sigal, Africa Health Research Institute, Durban, South Africa [1].

In lab studies working with live Omicron virus, the researchers showed that this variant still relies on the ACE2 receptor to infect human lung cells. That’s really good news. It means that the therapeutic tools already developed, including vaccines, should generally remain useful for combatting this new variant.

Sigal and colleagues also tested the ability of antibodies in the plasma from 12 fully vaccinated individuals to neutralize Omicron. Six of the individuals had no history of COVID-19. The other six had been infected with the original variant in the first wave of infections in South Africa.

As expected, the samples showed very strong neutralization against the original SARS-CoV-2 variant. However, antibodies from people who’d been previously vaccinated with the two-dose Pfizer vaccine took a significant hit against Omicron, showing about a 40-fold decline in neutralizing ability.

This escape from immunity wasn’t complete. Indeed, blood samples from five individuals showed relatively good antibody levels against Omicron. All five had previously been infected with SARS-CoV-2 in addition to being vaccinated. These findings add to evidence on the value of full vaccination for protecting against reinfections in people who’ve had COVID-19 previously.

Also of great interest were the first results of the Pfizer study, which the company made available in a news release [2]. Pfizer researchers also conducted laboratory studies to test the neutralizing ability of blood samples from 19 individuals one month after a second shot compared to 20 others one month after a booster shot.

These studies showed that the neutralizing ability of samples from those who’d received two shots had a more than 25-fold decline relative to the original virus. Together with the South Africa data, it suggests that the two-dose series may not be enough to protect against breakthrough infections with the Omicron variant.

In much more encouraging news, their studies went on to show that a booster dose of the Pfizer vaccine raised antibody levels against Omicron to a level comparable to the two-dose regimen against the original variant (as shown in the figure above). While efforts already are underway to develop an Omicron-specific COVID-19 vaccine, these findings suggest that it’s already possible to get good protection against this new variant by getting a booster shot.

Very recently, real-world data from the United Kingdom, where Omicron cases are rising rapidly, are providing additional evidence for how boosters can help. In a preprint [3], Andrews et. al showed the effectiveness of two shots of Pfizer mRNA vaccine trended down after four months to about 40 percent. That’s not great, but note that 40 percent is far better than zero. So, clearly there is some protection provided.

Graph showing Pfizer booster is about 80% effective after 2 weeks against Omicron
Credit: Andrews N, et al., KHub.net 2021

Most impressively (as shown in the figure from Andrews N, et al.) a booster substantially raised that vaccine effectiveness to about 80 percent. That’s not quite as high as for Delta, but certainly an encouraging result. Once again, these data show that boosting the immune system after a pause produces enhanced immunity against new viral variants, even though the booster was designed from the original virus. Your immune system is awfully clever. You get both quantitative and qualitative benefits.

It’s also worth noting that the Omicron variant mostly doesn’t have mutations in portions of its genome that are the targets of other aspects of vaccine-induced immunity, including T cells. These cells are part of the body’s second line of defense and are generally harder for viruses to escape. While T cells can’t prevent infection, they help protect against more severe illness and death.

It’s important to note that scientists around the world are also closely monitoring Omicron’s severity While this variant appears to be highly transmissible, and it is still early for rigorous conclusions, the initial research indicates this variant may actually produce milder illness than Delta, which is currently the dominant strain in the United States.

But there’s still a tremendous amount of research to be done that could change how we view Omicron. This research will take time and patience.

What won’t change, though, is that vaccines are the best way to protect yourself and others against COVID-19. (And these recent data provide an even-stronger reason to get a booster now if you are eligible.) Wearing a mask, especially in public indoor settings, offers good protection against the spread of all SARS-CoV-2 variants. If you’ve got symptoms or think you may have been exposed, get tested and stay home if you get a positive result. As we await more answers, it’s as important as ever to use all the tools available to keep yourself, your loved ones, and your community happy and healthy this holiday season.

References:

[1] SARS-CoV-2 Omicron has extensive but incomplete escape of Pfizer BNT162b2 elicited neutralization and requires ACE2 for infection. Sandile C, et al. Sandile C, et al. medRxiv preprint. December 9, 2021.

[2] Pfizer and BioNTech provide update on Omicron variant. Pfizer. December 8, 2021.

[3] Effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines against the Omicron (B.1.1.529) variant of concern. Andrews N, et al. KHub.net preprint. December 10, 2021.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Sigal Lab (Africa Health Research Institute, Durban, South Africa)


Israeli Study Shows How COVID-19 Immunity Wanes over Time

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

An elderly man getting a vaccine by a doctor
Credit: bbernard/Shutterstock

The winter holidays are approaching, and among the many things to be grateful for this year is that nearly 200 million Americans are fully vaccinated for COVID-19. That will make it safer to spend time with friends and family, though everyone should remain vigilant just to be on the safe side. Though relatively uncommon, breakthrough infections are possible. That’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends booster shots for several at-risk groups, including folks 65 years and older, those with underlying medical conditions, and people whose occupations place them at high risk of exposure.

One of the main studies providing the evidence for CDC’s recommendation was recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine [1]. It found that vaccine-induced immunity, while still quite protective against infection and severe illness from COVID-19, can wane after several months.

The study is yet another highly informative report from Israel, where public health officials launched a particularly vigorous national vaccination campaign in December 2020. More than half of adult Israelis received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine within the first three months of the campaign. By May 2021, Israel had extremely small numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases—just a few dozen per day.

But the numbers crept back up in June 2021. The rise also included a substantial number of breakthrough infections in vaccinated individuals. The vast majority of those cases in June—98 percent—were caused by the emerging Delta variant.

Researchers led by Yair Goldberg, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, wondered whether this resurgence of COVID-19 could be fully explained by the rise of the more infectious Delta variant. Or, they wondered, did the waning of immunity over time also play a role?

To find out, the researchers looked to over 4.7 million fully vaccinated Israeli adults, more than 13,000 of whom had breakthrough infections from July 11 to 31, 2021 with SARS-CoV-2. The researchers looked for an association between the rate of confirmed infections and the time that had passed since vaccination. Without any significant waning of immunity, one shouldn’t see any difference in infection rates among people who were fully vaccinated at the earliest opportunity versus those vaccinated later.

The results were clear: the rate of confirmed COVID-19 infection revealed a slow but steady waning of immunity over time. Among individuals 60 years or older who were fully vaccinated last January, the number of confirmed breakthrough infections was 3.3 per 1,000 people during the three weeks of the study. Those who were vaccinated in February and March had lower infection rates of 2.2 per 1,000 and 1.7 per 1,000, respectively. The data revealed a similar pattern in those aged 40 to 59 and those aged 16 to 39.

An important question is whether these breakthrough infections were serious enough to require hospitalization. While such cases were much less common, more than 400 of those with confirmed COVID-19 breakthroughs went on to develop severe illness. And, again, the data show a similar pattern of waning immunity. The rate of severe COVID-19 among adults 60 years of age or older who were fully vaccinated in January was 0.34 cases per 1,000 persons. The rate of severe illness dropped to 0.26 cases per 1,000 among those vaccinated in February and 0.15 cases per 1,000 for those vaccinated in March. The researchers report that the number of severe COVID-19 cases among the younger fully vaccinated groups were too small to draw any conclusions.

While the Delta variant surely has played a role in the resurgence of COVID-19 in recent months, these findings suggest that waning immunity also is an important factor. Understanding these dynamics is essential for making critical policy decisions. In fact, these data were a key factor in the decision by the Israeli Ministry of Health in July 2021 to approve administration of COVID-19 booster shots for individuals who’d been vaccinated at least 5 months before.

Back in the U.S., if you were among those who got your vaccine on the early side—good for you. If it’s been more than six months since your original shots, and if you are in one of the risk groups, you should consider a COVID-19 booster shot to remain optimally protected in the months ahead. I’ll be getting my Moderna booster this week. While you’re at it, consider getting your annual flu shot taken care of, too. The CDC guidelines state that it’s perfectly OK to get your COVID-19 and flu shots at the same time.

Reference:

[1] Waning immunity after the BNT162b2 vaccine in Israel. Goldberg Y, Mandel M, Bar-On YM, Bodenheimer O, Freedman L, Haas EJ, Milo R, Alroy-Preis S, Ash N, Huppert A. N Engl J Med. 2021 Oct 27.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

COVID-19 Vaccine Booster Shots (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Frequently Asked Influenza (Flu) Questions: 2021-2022 Season (CDC)


Breakthrough Infections Occur in Those with Lower Antibody Levels, Israeli Study Shows

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

A wall of bricks with antibody symbols on them. Where one brick is missing, viruses flood through.

To see how COVID-19 vaccines are working in the real world, Israel has provided particularly compelling data. The fact that Israel is relatively small, keeps comprehensive medical records, and has a high vaccination rate with a single vaccine (Pfizer) has contributed to its robust data collection. Now, a new Israeli study offers some insight into those relatively uncommon breakthrough infections. It confirms that breakthrough cases, as might be expected, arise most often in individuals with lower levels of neutralizing antibodies.

The findings reported in The New England Journal of Medicine focused on nearly 1,500 of about 11,500 fully vaccinated health care workers at Sheba Medical Center, Ramat Gan, Israel [1]. All had received two doses of the Pfizer mRNA vaccine. But, from December 19, 2020 to April 28, 2021, they were tested for a breakthrough infection due to a known exposure to someone with COVID-19 or possible symptoms of the disease.

Just 39 confirmed breakthrough cases were found, indicating a breakthrough infection rate of just 0.4 percent. That’s consistent with rates reported in previous studies. Most in the Israeli study who tested positive for COVID-19 had mild or no symptoms and none required hospitalization.

In the new study, researchers led by Gili Regev-Yochay at Sheba Medical Center’s Infection Control and Prevention Unit, characterized as many breakthrough infections as possible among the health care workers. Almost half of the infections involved members of the hospital nursing staff. But breakthrough cases also were found in hospital administration, maintenance workers, doctors, and other health professionals.

The average age of someone with a breakthrough infection was 42, and it’s notable that only one person was known to have a weakened immune system. The most common symptoms were respiratory congestion, muscle aches (myalgia), and loss of smell or taste. Most didn’t develop a fever. At six weeks after diagnosis, 19 percent reported having symptoms of Long COVID syndrome, including prolonged loss of smell, persistent cough, weakness, and fatigue. About a quarter stayed home from work for longer than the required 10 days, and one had yet to return to work at six weeks.

For 22 of the 39 people with a breakthrough infection, the researchers had results of neutralizing antibody tests from the week leading up to their positive COVID-19 test result. To look for patterns in the antibody data, they matched those individuals to 104 uninfected people for whom they also had antibody test results. These data showed that those with a breakthrough infection had consistently lower levels of neutralizing antibodies circulating in their bloodstream to SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. In general, higher levels of neutralizing antibodies are associated with greater protection and lower infectivity—though other aspects of the immune system (memory B cells and cell-mediated immunity) also contribute.

Importantly, in all cases for which there were relevant data, the source of the breakthrough infection was thought to be an unvaccinated person. In fact, more than half of those who developed a breakthrough infection appeared to have become infected from an unvaccinated member of their own household.

Other cases were suspected to arise from exposure to an unvaccinated coworker or patient. Contact tracing found no evidence that any of the 39 health care workers with a breakthrough infection passed it on to anyone else.

The findings add to evidence that full vaccination and associated immunity offer good protection against SARS-CoV-2 infection and severe illness. Understanding how SARS-CoV-2 immunity changes over time is key for charting the course of this pandemic and making important decisions about COVID-19 vaccine boosters.

Many questions remain. For instance, it’s not clear from the study whether lower neutralizing antibodies in those with breakthrough cases reflect waning immunity or, for reasons we don’t yet understand, those individuals may have had a more limited immune response to the vaccine. Also, this study was conducted before the Delta variant became dominant in Israel (and now in the whole world).

Overall, these findings provide more reassurance that these vaccines are extremely effective. Breakthrough infections, while they can and do occur, are a relatively uncommon event. Here in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recently estimated that infection is six times less likely for vaccinated than unvaccinated persons [2]. That those with immunity tend to have mild or no symptoms if they do develop a breakthrough case, however, is a reminder that these cases could easily be missed, and they could put vulnerable populations at greater risk. It’s yet another reason for all those who can to get themselves vaccinated as soon as possible or consider a booster shot when they become eligible.

References:

[1] Covid-19 breakthrough infections in vaccinated health care workers. Bergwerk M, Gonen T, Lustig Y, Amit S, Lipsitch M, Cohen C, Mandelboim M, Levin EG, Rubin C, Indenbaum V, Tal I, Zavitan M, Zuckerman N, Bar-Chaim A, Kreiss Y, Regev-Yochay G. N Engl J Med. 2021 Oct 14;385(16):1474-1484.

[2] Rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths by vaccination status, COVID Data Tracker, Centers for Disease and Prevention. Accessed October 25, 2021.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Sheba Medical Center (Ramat Gan, Israel)


Breakthrough Infections in Vaccinated People Less Likely to Cause ‘Long COVID’

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

Long Covid. Two syringes in an arrow pointed down. symptoms of long covid in the background

There’s no question that vaccines are making a tremendous difference in protecting individuals and whole communities against infection and severe illness from SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. And now, there’s yet another reason to get the vaccine: in the event of a breakthrough infection, people who are fully vaccinated also are substantially less likely to develop Long COVID Syndrome, which causes brain fog, muscle pain, fatigue, and a constellation of other debilitating symptoms that can last for months after recovery from an initial infection.

These important findings published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases are the latest from the COVID Symptom Study [1]. This study allows everyday citizens in the United Kingdom to download a smartphone app and self-report data on their infection, symptoms, and vaccination status over a long period of time.

Previously, the study found that 1 in 20 people in the U.K. who got COVID-19 battled Long COVID symptoms for eight weeks or more. But this work was done before vaccines were widely available. What about the risk among those who got COVID-19 for the first time as a breakthrough infection after receiving a double dose of any of the three COVID-19 vaccines (Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca) authorized for use in the U.K.?

To answer that question, Claire Steves, King’s College, London, and colleagues looked to frequent users of the COVID Symptom Study app on their smartphones. In its new work, Steves’ team was interested in analyzing data submitted by folks who’d logged their symptoms, test results, and vaccination status between December 9, 2020, and July 4, 2021. The team found there were more than 1.2 million adults who’d received a first dose of vaccine and nearly 1 million who were fully vaccinated during this period.

The data show that only 0.2 percent of those who were fully vaccinated later tested positive for COVID-19. While accounting for differences in age, sex, and other risk factors, the researchers found that fully vaccinated individuals who developed breakthrough infections were about half (49 percent) as likely as unvaccinated people to report symptoms of Long COVID Syndrome lasting at least four weeks after infection.

The most common symptoms were similar in vaccinated and unvaccinated adults with COVID-19, and included loss of smell, cough, fever, headaches, and fatigue. However, all of these symptoms were milder and less frequently reported among the vaccinated as compared to the unvaccinated.

Vaccinated people who became infected were also more likely than the unvaccinated to be asymptomatic. And, if they did develop symptoms, they were half as likely to report multiple symptoms in the first week of illness. Another vaccination benefit was that people with a breakthrough infection were about a third as likely to report any severe symptoms. They also were more than 70 percent less likely to require hospitalization.

We still have a lot to learn about Long COVID, and, to get the answers, NIH has launched the RECOVER Initiative. The initiative will study tens of thousands of COVID-19 survivors to understand why many individuals don’t recover as quickly as expected, and what might be the cause, prevention, and treatment for Long COVID.

In the meantime, these latest findings offer the encouraging news that help is already here in the form of vaccines, which provide a very effective way to protect against COVID-19 and greatly reduce the odds of Long COVID if you do get sick. So, if you haven’t done so already, make a plan to protect your own health and help end this pandemic by getting yourself fully vaccinated. Vaccines are free and available near to you—just go to vaccines.gov or text your zip code to 438829.

Reference:

[1] Risk factors and disease profile of post-vaccination SARS-CoV-2 infection in UK users of the COVID Symptom Study app: a prospective, community-based, nested, case-control study. Antonelli M, Penfold RS, Merino J, Sudre CH, Molteni E, Berry S, Canas LS, Graham MS, Klaser K, Modat M, Murray B, Kerfoot E, Chen L, Deng J, Österdahl MF, Cheetham NJ, Drew DA, Nguyen LH, Pujol JC, Hu C, Selvachandran S, Polidori L, May A, Wolf J, Chan AT, Hammers A, Duncan EL, Spector TD, Ourselin S, Steves CJ. Lancet Infect Dis. 2021 Sep 1:S1473-3099(21)00460-6.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Claire Steves (King’s College London, United Kingdom)

COVID Symptom Study


A Real-World Look at COVID-19 Vaccines Versus New Variants

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

A woman receiving a vaccine from a doctor
Credit: Getty Images/Andrey Popov

Clinical trials have shown the COVID-19 vaccines now being administered around the country are highly effective in protecting fully vaccinated individuals from the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. But will they continue to offer sufficient protection as the frequency of more transmissible and, in some cases, deadly emerging variants rise?

More study and time is needed to fully answer this question. But new data from Israel offers an early look at how the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is holding up in the real world against coronavirus “variants of concern,” including the B.1.1.7 “U.K. variant” and the B.1.351 “South African variant.” And, while there is some evidence of breakthrough infections, the findings overall are encouraging.

Israel was an obvious place to look for answers to breakthrough infections. By last March, more than 80 percent of the country’s vaccine-eligible population had received at least one dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. An earlier study in Israel showed that the vaccine offered 94 percent to 96 percent protection against infection across age groups, comparable to the results of clinical trials. But it didn’t dig into any important differences in infection rates with newly emerging variants, post-vaccination.

To dig a little deeper into this possibility, a team led by Adi Stern, Tel Aviv University, and Shay Ben-Shachar, Clalit Research Institute, Tel Aviv, looked for evidence of breakthrough infections in several hundred people who’d had at least one dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine [1]. The idea was, if this vaccine were less effective in protecting against new variants of concern, the proportion of infections caused by them should be higher in vaccinated compared to unvaccinated individuals.

During the study, reported as a pre-print in MedRxiv, it became clear that B.1.1.7 was the predominant SARS-CoV-2 variant in Israel, with its frequency increasing over time. By comparison, the B.1.351 “South African” variant was rare, accounting for less than 1 percent of cases sampled in the study. No other variants of concern, as defined by the World Health Organization, were detected.

Graph showing percentages of virus variants. B.1.1.7 is nearly 100% by March
Caption: Changing variant frequencies during the study. Credit: Adapted from Kustin T, medRxiv, 2021

In total, the researchers sequenced SARS-CoV-2 from more than 800 samples, including vaccinated individuals and matched unvaccinated individuals with similar characteristics including age, sex, and geographic location. They identified nearly 250 instances in which an individual became infected with SARS-CoV-2 after receiving their first vaccine dose, meaning that they were only partially protected. Almost 150 got infected sometime after receiving the second dose.

Interestingly, the evidence showed that these breakthrough infections with the B.1.1.7 variant occurred slightly more often in people after the first vaccine dose compared to unvaccinated people. No evidence was found for increased breakthrough rates of B.1.1.7 a week or more after the second dose. In contrast, after the second vaccine dose, infection with the B.1.351 became slightly more frequent. The findings show that people remain susceptible to B.1.1.7 following a single dose of vaccine. They also suggest that the two-dose vaccine may be slightly less effective against B.1.351 compared to the original or B.1.1.7 variants.

It’s important to note, however, that the researchers only observed 11 infections with the B.1.351 variant—eight of them in individuals vaccinated with two doses. Interestingly, all eight tested positive seven to 13 days after receiving their second dose. No one in the study tested positive for this variant two weeks or more after the second dose.

Many questions remain, including whether the vaccines reduced the duration and/or severity of infections. Nevertheless, the findings are a reminder that—while these vaccines offer remarkable protection—they are not foolproof. Breakthrough infections can and do occur.

In fact, in a recent report in the New England Journal of Medicine, NIH-supported researchers detailed the experiences of two fully vaccinated individuals in New York who tested positive for COVID-19 [2]. Though both recovered quickly at home, genomic data in those cases revealed multiple mutations in both viral samples, including a variant first identified in South Africa and Brazil, and another, which has been spreading in New York since November.

These findings in Israel and the United States also highlight the importance of tracking coronavirus variants and making sure that all eligible individuals get fully vaccinated as soon as they have the opportunity. They show that COVID-19 testing will continue to play an important role, even in those who’ve already been vaccinated. This is even more important now as new variants continue to rise in frequency.

Just over 100 million Americans aged 18 and older—about 40 percent of adults—are now fully vaccinated [3]. However, we need to get that number much higher. If you or a loved one haven’t yet been vaccinated, please consider doing so. It will help to save lives and bring this pandemic to an end.

References:

[1] Evidence for increased breakthrough rates of SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern in BNT162b2 mRNA vaccinated individuals. Kustin T et al. medRxiv. April 16, 2021.

[2] Vaccine breakthrough infections with SARS-CoV-2 variants. Hacisuleyman E, Hale C, Saito Y, Blachere NE, Bergh M, Conlon EG, Schaefer-Babajew DJ, DaSilva J, Muecksch F, Gaebler C, Lifton R, Nussenzweig MC, Hatziioannou T, Bieniasz PD, Darnell RB. N Engl J Med. 2021 Apr 21.

[3] COVID-19 vaccinations in the United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Stern Lab (Tel Aviv University, Israel)

Ben-Shachar Lab (Clalit Research Institute, Tel Aviv, Israel)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases