Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
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 . 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 . 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.
 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.
 Rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths by vaccination status, COVID Data Tracker, Centers for Disease and Prevention. Accessed October 25, 2021.
COVID-19 Research (NIH)
Sheba Medical Center (Ramat Gan, Israel)
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Any of the available COVID-19 vaccines offer remarkable personal protection against the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. So, it also stands to reason that folks who are vaccinated will reduce the risk of spreading the virus to family members within their households. That protection is particularly important when not all family members can be immunized—as when there are children under age 12 or adults with immunosuppression in the home. But just how much can vaccines help to protect families from COVID-19 when only some, not all, in the household have immunity?
A Swedish study, published recently in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, offers some of the first hard figures on this topic, and the findings are quite encouraging . The data show that people without any immunity against COVID-19 were at considerably lower risk of infection and hospitalization when other members of their family had immunity, either from a natural infection or vaccination. In fact, the protective effect on family members went up as the number of immune family members increased.
The findings come from a team led by Peter Nordström, Umeå University, Sweden. Like in the United States, vaccinations in Sweden initially were prioritized for high-risk groups and people with certain preexisting conditions. As a result, Swedish families have functioned, often in close contact, as a mix of immune and susceptible individuals over the course of the pandemic.
To explore these family dynamics in greater detail, the researchers relied on nationwide registries to identify all Swedes who had immunity to SARS-COV-2 from either a confirmed infection or vaccination by May 26, 2021. The researchers identified more than 5 million individuals who’d been either diagnosed with COVID-19 or vaccinated and then matched them to a control group without immunity. They also limited the analysis to individuals in families with two to five members of mixed immune status.
This left them with about 1.8 million people from more than 800,000 families. The situation in Sweden is also a little unique from most Western nations. Somewhat controversially, the Swedish government didn’t order a mandatory citizen quarantine to slow the spread of the virus.
The researchers found in the data a rising protective effect for those in the household without immunity as the number of immune family members increased. Families with one immune family member had a 45 to 61 percent lower risk of a COVID-19 infection in the home than those who had none. Those with two immune family members enjoyed more protection, with a 75 to 86 percent reduction in risk of COVID-19. For those with three or four immune family members, the protection went up to more than 90 percent, topping out at 97 percent protection. The results were similar when the researchers limited the analysis to COVID-19 illnesses serious enough to warrant a hospital stay.
The findings confirm that vaccination is incredibly important not only for individual protection, but also for reducing transmission, especially within families and those with whom we’re in close physical contact. It’s also important to note that the findings apply to the original SARS-CoV-2 variant, which was dominant when the study was conducted. But we know that the vaccines offer good protection against Delta and other variants of concern.
These results show quite clearly that vaccines offer protection for individuals who lack immunity, with important implications for finally ending this pandemic. This doesn’t change the fact that all those who can and still need to get fully vaccinated should do so as soon as possible. If you are eligible for a booster shot, that’s something to consider, too. But, if for whatever reason you haven’t gotten vaccinated just yet, perhaps these new findings will encourage you to do it now for the sake of those other people you care about. This is a chance to love your family—and love your neighbor.
 Association between risk of COVID-19 infection in nonimmune individuals and COVID-19 immunity in their family members. Nordström P, Ballin M, Nordström A. JAMA Intern Med. 2021 Oct 11.
COVID-19 Research (NIH)
Peter Nordström (Umeå University, Sweden)
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
As long and difficult as this pandemic has been, I remain overwhelmingly grateful for the remarkable progress being made, including the hard work of so many people to develop rapidly and then deploy multiple life-saving vaccines. And yet, grave concerns remain that vaccine hesitancy—the reluctance of certain individuals and groups to get themselves and their children vaccinated—could cause this pandemic to go on much longer than it should.
We’re seeing the results of such hesitancy in the news every day, highlighting the rampant spread of COVID-19 that’s stretching our healthcare systems and resources dangerously thin in many places. The vast majority of those currently hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, and most of those tragic 2,000 deaths each day could have been prevented. The stories of children and adults who realized too late the importance of getting vaccinated are heartbreaking.
With these troubling realities in mind, I was encouraged to see a new study in the journal JAMA Network Open that tracked vaccine hesitancy over time in a random sample of more than 4,600 Americans. This national study shows that vaccine hesitancy isn’t set in stone. Over the course of this pandemic, hesitancy has decreased, and many who initially said no are now getting their shots. Many others who remain unvaccinated lean toward making an appointment.
The findings come from Aaron Siegler and colleagues, Emory University, Atlanta. They were interested in studying how entrenched vaccine hesitancy would be over time. The researchers also wanted to see how often those who were initially hesitant went on to get their shots.
To find out, they recruited a diverse, random, national sampling of individuals from August to December 2020, just before the first vaccines were granted Emergency Use Approval and became widely available. They wanted to get a baseline, or starting characterization, on vaccine hesitancy. Participants were asked two straightforward questions, “Have you received the COVID-19 vaccine?” and “How likely are you to get it in the future?” From March to April 2021, the researchers followed up by asking participants the same questions again when vaccines were more readily available to many (although still not all) adults.
The survey’s initial results showed that nearly 70 percent of respondents were willing to get vaccinated at the outset, with the other 30 percent expressing some hesitancy. The good news is among the nearly 3,500 individuals who answered the survey at follow-up, about a third who were initially vaccine hesitant already had received at least one shot. Another third also said that they’d now be willing to get the vaccine, even though they hadn’t just yet.
Among those who initially expressed a willingness to get vaccinated, about half had done so at follow up by spring 2021 (again, some still may not have been eligible). Forty percent said they were likely to get vaccinated. However, 7 percent of those who were initially willing said they were now less likely to get vaccinated than before.
There were some notable demographic differences. Folks over age 65, people who identified as non-Hispanic Asians, and those with graduate degrees were most likely to have changed their minds and rolled up their sleeves. Only about 15 percent in any one of these groups said they weren’t willing to be vaccinated. Most reluctant older people ultimately got their shots.
The picture was more static for people aged 45 to 54 and for those with a high school education or less. The majority of those remained unvaccinated, and about 40 percent still said they were unlikely to change their minds.
At the outset, people of Hispanic heritage were as willing as non-Hispanic whites to get vaccinated. At follow-up, however, fewer Hispanics than non-Hispanic whites said they’d gotten their shots. This finding suggests that, in addition to some hesitancy, there may be significant barriers still to overcome to make vaccination easier and more accessible to certain groups, including Hispanic communities from Central and South America.
Willingness among non-Hispanic Blacks was consistently lowest, but nearly half had gotten at least one dose of vaccine by the time they completed the second survey. That’s comparable to the vaccination rate in white study participants. For more recent data on vaccination rates by race/ethnicity, see this report from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Overall, while a small number of respondents grew more reluctant over time, most people grew more comfortable with the vaccines and were more likely to say they’d get vaccinated, if they hadn’t already. In fact, by the end of the study, the hesitant group had shrunk from 31 to 15 percent. It’s worth noting that the researchers checked the validity of self-reported vaccination using antibody tests and the results matched up rather well.
This is all mostly good news, but there’s clearly more work to do. An estimated 70 million eligible Americans have yet to get their first shot, and remain highly vulnerable to infection and serious illness from the Delta variant. They are capable of spreading the virus to other vulnerable people around them (including children), and incubating the next variants that might provide more resistance to the vaccines and therapies. They are also at risk for Long COVID, even after a relatively mild acute illness.
The work ahead involves answering questions and addressing concerns from people who remain hesitant. It’s also incredibly important to reach out to those willing, but unvaccinated, individuals, to see what can be done to help them get their shots. If you happen to be one of those, it’s easy to find the places near you that have free vaccines ready to administer. Go to vaccines.gov, or punch 438829 on your cell phone and enter your zip code—in less than a minute you will get the location of vaccine sites nearby.
Nearly 400 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in communities all across the United States. More than 600,000 more are being administered on average each day. And yet, more than 80,000 new infections are still reported daily, and COVID-19 still steals the lives of about 2,000 mostly unvaccinated people each day.
These vaccines are key for protecting yourself and ultimately beating this pandemic. As these findings show, the vast majority of Americans understand this and either have been vaccinated or are willing to do so. Let’s keep up the good work, and see to it that even more minds will be changed—and more individuals protected before they may find it’s too late.
 Trajectory of COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy over time and association of initial vaccine hesitancy with subsequent vaccination. Siegler AJ, Luisi N, Hall EW, Bradley H, Sanchez T, Lopman BA, Sullivan PS. JAMA Netw Open. 2021 Sep 1;4(9):e2126882.
COVID-19 Research (NIH)
COVID-19 Vaccinations in the United States (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta)
Aaron Siegler (Emory University, Atlanta)
NIH Support: National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
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 . 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.
 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.
COVID-19 Research (NIH)
Claire Steves (King’s College London, United Kingdom)
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
At the end of last year, you may recall hearing news reports that the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States had topped 20 million. While that number came as truly sobering news, it also likely was an underestimate. Many cases went undetected due to limited testing early in the year and a large number of infections that produced mild or no symptoms.
Now, a recent article published in Nature offers a more-comprehensive estimate that puts the true number of infections by the end of 2020 at more than 100 million . That’s equal to just under a third of the U.S. population of 328 million. This revised number shows just how rapidly this novel coronavirus spread through the country last year. It also brings home just how timely the vaccines have been—and continue to be in 2021—to protect our nation’s health in this time of pandemic.
The work comes from NIH grantee Jeffrey Shaman, Sen Pei, and colleagues, Columbia University, New York. As shown above in the map, the researchers estimated the percentage of people who had been infected with SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, in communities across the country through December 2020.
To generate this map, they started with existing national data on the number of coronavirus cases (both detected and undetected) in 3,142 U.S. counties and major metropolitan areas. They then factored in data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on the number of people who tested positive for antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. These CDC data are useful for picking up on past infections, including those that went undetected.
From these data, the researchers calculated that only about 11 percent of all COVID-19 cases were confirmed by a positive test result in March 2020. By the end of the year, with testing improvements and heightened public awareness of COVID-19, the ascertainment rate (the number of infections that were known versus unknown) rose to about 25 percent on average. This measure also varied a lot across the country. For instance, the ascertainment rates in Miami and Phoenix were higher than the national average, while rates in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago were lower than average.
How many people were potentially walking around with a contagious SARS-CoV-2 infection? The model helps to answer this, too. On December 31, 2020, the researchers estimate that 0.77 percent of the U.S. population had a contagious infection. That’s about 1 in every 130 people on average. In some places, it was much higher. In Los Angeles, for example, nearly 1 in 40 (or 2.42 percent) had a SARS-CoV-2 infection as they rang in the New Year.
Over the course of the year, the fatality rate associated with COVID-19 dropped, at least in part due to earlier diagnosis and advances in treatment. The fatality rate went from 0.77 percent in April to 0.31 percent in December. While this is great news, it still shows that COVID-19 remains much more dangerous than seasonal influenza (which has a fatality rate of 0.08 percent).
Today, the landscape has changed considerably. Vaccines are now widely available, giving many more people immune protection without ever having to get infected. And yet, the rise of the Delta and other variants means that breakthrough infections and reinfections—which the researchers didn’t account for in their model—have become a much bigger concern.
Looking ahead to the end of 2021, Americans must continue to do everything they can to protect their communities from the spread of this terrible virus. That means getting vaccinated if you haven’t already, staying home and getting tested if you’ve got symptoms or know of an exposure, and taking other measures to keep yourself and your loved ones safe and well. These measures we take now will influence the infection rates and susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2 in our communities going forward. That will determine what the map of SARS-CoV-2 infections will look like in 2021 and beyond and, ultimately, how soon we can finally put this pandemic behind us.
 Burden and characteristics of COVID-19 in the United States during 2020. Pei S, Yamana TK, Kandula S, Galanti M, Shaman J. Nature. 2021 Aug 26.
COVID-19 Research (NIH)
Sen Pei (Columbia University, New York)
Jeffrey Shaman (Columbia University, New York)
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Many people, including me, have experienced a sense of gratitude and relief after receiving the new COVID-19 mRNA vaccines. But all of us are also wondering how long the vaccines will remain protective against SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19.
Earlier this year, clinical trials of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines indicated that both immunizations appeared to protect for at least six months. Now, a study in the journal Nature provides some hopeful news that these mRNA vaccines may be protective even longer .
In the new study, researchers monitored key immune cells in the lymph nodes of a group of people who received both doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA vaccine. The work consistently found hallmarks of a strong, persistent immune response against SARS-CoV-2 that could be protective for years to come.
Though more research is needed, the findings add evidence that people who received mRNA COVID-19 vaccines may not need an additional “booster” shot for quite some time, unless SARS-CoV-2 evolves into new forms, or variants, that can evade this vaccine-induced immunity. That’s why it remains so critical that more Americans get vaccinated not only to protect themselves and their loved ones, but to help stop the virus’s spread in their communities and thereby reduce its ability to mutate.
The new study was conducted by an NIH-supported research team led by Jackson Turner, Jane O’Halloran, Rachel Presti, and Ali Ellebedy at Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis. That work builds upon the group’s previous findings that people who survived COVID-19 had immune cells residing in their bone marrow for at least eight months after the infection that could recognize SARS-CoV-2 . The researchers wanted to see if similar, persistent immunity existed in people who hadn’t come down with COVID-19 but who were immunized with an mRNA vaccine.
To find out, Ellebedy and team recruited 14 healthy adults who were scheduled to receive both doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Three weeks after their first dose of vaccine, the volunteers underwent a lymph node biopsy, primarily from nodes in the armpit. Similar biopsies were repeated at four, five, seven, and 15 weeks after the first vaccine dose.
The lymph nodes are where the human immune system establishes so-called germinal centers, which function as “training camps” that teach immature immune cells to recognize new disease threats and attack them with acquired efficiency. In this case, the “threat” is the spike protein of SARS-COV-2 encoded by the vaccine.
By the 15-week mark, all of the participants sampled continued to have active germinal centers in their lymph nodes. These centers produced an army of cells trained to remember the spike protein, along with other types of cells, including antibody-producing plasmablasts, that were locked and loaded to neutralize this key protein. In fact, Ellebedy noted that even after the study ended at 15 weeks, he and his team continued to find no signs of germinal center activity slowing down in the lymph nodes of the vaccinated volunteers.
Ellebedy said the immune response observed in his team’s study appears so robust and persistent that he thinks that it could last for years. The researcher based his assessment on the fact that germinal center reactions that persist for several months or longer usually indicate an extremely vigorous immune response that culminates in the production of large numbers of long-lasting immune cells, called memory B cells. Some memory B cells can survive for years or even decades, which gives them the capacity to respond multiple times to the same infectious agent.
This study raises some really important issues for which we still don’t have complete answers: What is the most reliable correlate of immunity from COVID-19 vaccines? Are circulating spike protein antibodies (the easiest to measure) the best indicator? Do we need to know what’s happening in the lymph nodes? What about the T cells that are responsible for cell-mediated immunity?
If you follow the news, you may have seen a bit of a dust-up in the last week on this topic. Pfizer announced the need for a booster shot has become more apparent, based on serum antibodies. Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said such a conclusion would be premature, since vaccine protection looks really good right now, including for the delta variant that has all of us concerned.
We’ve still got a lot more to learn about the immunity generated by the mRNA vaccines. But this study—one of the first in humans to provide direct evidence of germinal center activity after mRNA vaccination—is a good place to continue the discussion.
 SARS-CoV-2 mRNA vaccines induce persistent human germinal centre responses. Turner JS, O’Halloran JA, Kalaidina E, Kim W, Schmitz AJ, Zhou JQ, Lei T, Thapa M, Chen RE, Case JB, Amanat F, Rauseo AM, Haile A, Xie X, Klebert MK, Suessen T, Middleton WD, Shi PY, Krammer F, Teefey SA, Diamond MS, Presti RM, Ellebedy AH. Nature. 2021 Jun 28. [Online ahead of print]
 SARS-CoV-2 infection induces long-lived bone marrow plasma cells in humans. Turner JS, Kim W, Kalaidina E, Goss CW, Rauseo AM, Schmitz AJ, Hansen L, Haile A, Klebert MK, Pusic I, O’Halloran JA, Presti RM, Ellebedy AH. Nature. 2021 May 24. [Online ahead of print]
COVID-19 Research (NIH)
Ellebedy Lab (Washington University, St. Louis)
NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
A key issue as we move closer to ending the pandemic is determining more precisely how long people exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the COVID-19 virus, will make neutralizing antibodies against this dangerous coronavirus. Finding the answer is also potentially complicated with new SARS-CoV-2 “variants of concern” appearing around the world that could find ways to evade acquired immunity, increasing the chances of new outbreaks.
Now, a new NIH-supported study shows that the answer to this question will vary based on how an individual’s antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 were generated: over the course of a naturally acquired infection or from a COVID-19 vaccine. The new evidence shows that protective antibodies generated in response to an mRNA vaccine will target a broader range of SARS-CoV-2 variants carrying “single letter” changes in a key portion of their spike protein compared to antibodies acquired from an infection.
These results add to evidence that people with acquired immunity may have differing levels of protection to emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants. More importantly, the data provide further documentation that those who’ve had and recovered from a COVID-19 infection still stand to benefit from getting vaccinated.
These latest findings come from Jesse Bloom, Allison Greaney, and their team at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle. In an earlier study, this same team focused on the receptor binding domain (RBD), a key region of the spike protein that studs SARS-CoV-2’s outer surface. This RBD is especially important because the virus uses this part of its spike protein to anchor to another protein called ACE2 on human cells before infecting them. That makes RBD a prime target for both naturally acquired antibodies and those generated by vaccines. Using a method called deep mutational scanning, the Seattle group’s previous study mapped out all possible mutations in the RBD that would change the ability of the virus to bind ACE2 and/or for RBD-directed antibodies to strike their targets.
In their new study, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, Bloom, Greaney, and colleagues looked again to the thousands of possible RBD variants to understand how antibodies might be expected to hit their targets there . This time, they wanted to explore any differences between RBD-directed antibodies based on how they were acquired.
Again, they turned to deep mutational scanning. First, they created libraries of all 3,800 possible RBD single amino acid mutants and exposed the libraries to samples taken from vaccinated individuals and unvaccinated individuals who’d been previously infected. All vaccinated individuals had received two doses of the Moderna mRNA vaccine. This vaccine works by prompting a person’s cells to produce the spike protein, thereby launching an immune response and the production of antibodies.
By closely examining the results, the researchers uncovered important differences between acquired immunity in people who’d been vaccinated and unvaccinated people who’d been previously infected with SARS-CoV-2. Specifically, antibodies elicited by the mRNA vaccine were more focused to the RBD compared to antibodies elicited by an infection, which more often targeted other portions of the spike protein. Importantly, the vaccine-elicited antibodies targeted a broader range of places on the RBD than those elicited by natural infection.
These findings suggest that natural immunity and vaccine-generated immunity to SARS-CoV-2 will differ in how they recognize new viral variants. What’s more, antibodies acquired with the help of a vaccine may be more likely to target new SARS-CoV-2 variants potently, even when the variants carry new mutations in the RBD.
It’s not entirely clear why these differences in vaccine- and infection-elicited antibody responses exist. In both cases, RBD-directed antibodies are acquired from the immune system’s recognition and response to viral spike proteins. The Seattle team suggests these differences may arise because the vaccine presents the viral protein in slightly different conformations.
Also, it’s possible that mRNA delivery may change the way antigens are presented to the immune system, leading to differences in the antibodies that get produced. A third difference is that natural infection only exposes the body to the virus in the respiratory tract (unless the illness is very severe), while the vaccine is delivered to muscle, where the immune system may have an even better chance of seeing it and responding vigorously.
Whatever the underlying reasons turn out to be, it’s important to consider that humans are routinely infected and re-infected with other common coronaviruses, which are responsible for the common cold. It’s not at all unusual to catch a cold from seasonal coronaviruses year after year. That’s at least in part because those viruses tend to evolve to escape acquired immunity, much as SARS-CoV-2 is now in the process of doing.
The good news so far is that, unlike the situation for the common cold, we have now developed multiple COVID-19 vaccines. The evidence continues to suggest that acquired immunity from vaccines still offers substantial protection against the new variants now circulating around the globe.
The hope is that acquired immunity from the vaccines will indeed produce long-lasting protection against SARS-CoV-2 and bring an end to the pandemic. These new findings point encouragingly in that direction. They also serve as an important reminder to roll up your sleeve for the vaccine if you haven’t already done so, whether or not you’ve had COVID-19. Our best hope of winning this contest with the virus is to get as many people immunized now as possible. That will save lives, and reduce the likelihood of even more variants appearing that might evade protection from the current vaccines.
 Antibodies elicited by mRNA-1273 vaccination bind more broadly to the receptor binding domain than do those from SARS-CoV-2 infection. Greaney AJ, Loes AN, Gentles LE, Crawford KHD, Starr TN, Malone KD, Chu HY, Bloom JD. Sci Transl Med. 2021 Jun 8.
COVID-19 Research (NIH)
Bloom Lab (Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle)
NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
More than 170 million Americans already have received COVID-19 vaccines. As this number continues to grow and expand to younger age groups, I’m filled with overwhelming gratitude for all of the researchers who worked so diligently, over the course of decades, to build the scientific foundation for these life-saving vaccines. One of them is Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, who played a central role in the fact that, in the span of less than a year, we were able to develop safe and effective mRNA-based vaccines to protect against this devastating infectious disease.
As leader of the immunopathogenesis team at NIH’s Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center in Bethesda, MD, Dr. Corbett was ready, willing, and able when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged to take the critical first steps in developing what would become the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccines. Recently, she accepted a position at Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, where she will soon open her own viral immunology lab to help inform future vaccine development for coronaviruses and other respiratory viruses.
While she was preparing for her move to Harvard, I had a chance to speak with Dr. Corbett about her COVID-19 research experience and what it was like to get immunized with the vaccine that she helped to create. Our conversation was part of an NIH Facebook Live event in which we connected virtually from our homes in Maryland. Here is a condensed version of our chat.
Collins: You’ve studied SARS, MERS, and other coronaviruses for many years. Then, in early January 2020, like all of us, you heard that something was going on that sounded worrisome in Wuhan, China. What did you think?
Corbett: Well, the story actually began for me on December 31, 2019. My boss Dr. Barney Graham sent me an email at 6 a.m. that said: “Get ready for 2020.” There had been some news of a respiratory virus outbreak in the Wuhan district of China. I honestly wrote it off as probably a strain of the flu. Then, we got back to NIH after the holidays, and it was determined around January 6 that the virus was for certain a coronavirus. That meant our team would be responding to it.
We sat down and planned to monitor the situation very closely. We knew exactly what to do, based on our past work. We would go into full force to make a vaccine—the one now known as “the Moderna vaccine” —as quickly as possible for testing in a clinical trial. The goal was to make the vaccine in 100 days. And so when the genetic sequence of this new virus came out on January 10, I sprung out of bed and so did everyone on the team. It’s been kind of a whirlwind ever since.
Collins: Tell us a little bit more about that. The sequence got posted on the internet by a Chinese scientist. So you have this sequence, and everyone gathers in NIH’s Vaccine Research Center. Then what happens?
Corbett: The cool thing about this type of technology is you don’t even need the lab to design the vaccine. All you need are the letters, or sequence, that encodes the virus’ genetic material displayed on your computer screen. We could actually do the work from our homes, obviously in close conversation with each other.
This sequence is the virus’s genetic code. Just like humans have families—brothers, sisters, cousins—viruses also have families. So, we could see when looking at the sequence of letters, how similar this particular virus was to viruses that we’ve worked with before in the coronavirus family. It was almost like “A-ha! This is the part of the sequence that represents the protein on the surface of the virus.”
We knew that we could take the sequence of that surface protein and use all of the knowledge that we had from previous years to design a vaccine. And that’s what we did. We took that sequence on our computer screen and said we said this is exactly how we want this vaccine to look. The process was as straightforward as that.
Collins: In other words, you already knew that these coronaviruses have spike proteins on their surface and that’s the thing that’s going to be really useful for making an antibody. You’d already taken this approach in developing a vaccine for MERS, right?
Corbett: Exactly, we’d done that for MERS. Vaccines are basically a way to teach your body how to see a pathogen. Over the years, as vaccinology and technology have progressed, different scientists have figured out that you don’t really need the whole virus as a part of the vaccine. You can just take a small portion of that virus to alert your body.
In this case, taking the spike protein and teaching your immune system how to specifically spot and attack it, you can now protect yourself from COVID-19. So, we used the sequence of that spike protein, with some modifications to make it much better as a vaccine. We then deliver that to you as a message—messenger RNA (mRNA) —to get your muscle cells briefly to make the spike protein. Then, your body sees that spike protein hanging out on your cells and makes a really specific immune response to it. That way the next time your body sees the spike protein, if you ever come into contact with the virus, your immune system is armed and ready to attack.
Collins: Say more about this messenger RNA approach. It’s been so revolutionary and one of the reasons that we got vaccines into people’s arms in just 11 months. Had this approach ever been used before?
Corbett: Yes, messenger RNA technologies have been in development from a basic science perspective for over 15 years. A lot of that work was funded by NIH. Soon after I got to NIH, I attended a meeting in London called Transforming Vaccinology. At the time, Moderna was a smaller company that was working to make messenger RNA technologies, mostly centered around cancer therapies. But they had started to test some flu vaccines that used messenger RNA. My question to the presenter was: “Every single time I see you guys present, it looks like mRNA technology has always worked. Can you tell me a time that it hasn’t?” And he said, “I can’t.”
So, our understanding of how this technology works to make really good vaccines predates this pandemic. I think one of the worries that many people have is how fast and how new this technology is. But all science is compounded knowledge—everything builds on itself.
Collins: Right! We only learned about messenger RNA, because back in the 1950s and 1960s, some researchers decided to figure out how the information in our genetic instruction book, our DNA, can ultimately turn into proteins. It turned out that the message that carries that information is made of RNA.
So, you knew which kinds of letters to program into the messenger RNA vaccine. Would you explain how this vaccine, its messenger RNA, produces a spike protein. Where does that step happen?
Corbett: Your cells are machines built for this kind of thing. I like to remind people that, on a day-in, day-out basis, our cells make proteins—all of the hormones and other things our bodies needs to survive. So, we’re not teaching the cells to do anything different than they would normally do. That’s important to understand.
The way that cells do this is by reading the mRNA sequence. As they’re reading that sequence, they chew it up, like eating it, and say, “Okay, this sequence is for this very specific protein.” Then, they make that protein and push it to the surface of your cells. That’s how it happens.
Collins: And for mRNA vaccines, that’s the point when your immune system says “Wait a minute! I don’t recognize that as part of me, so I’ve got to make an antibody to it.” Then you’re off to the races and develop your immunity. Now that this mRNA vaccine strategy has succeeded for COVID-19, could it be applied to other infectious diseases or even non-infectious conditions?
Corbett: Yes, I heard that about 60 new companies have sprouted up in the last year around messenger RNA technology. They have ideas for different types of infectious disease vaccines and cancer therapies. I expect that this technology will be transformative to medicine in general.
Collins: Here’s a question from social media: “Why does it take two shots for the Pfizer and the Moderna mRNA vaccines? Why isn’t one good enough?”
Corbett: The way that these vaccines work is much like an alarm clock. Imagine your immune system is in bed and the first shot is the alarm clock going off to say, “Hey, wake up and get ready.” And just like I did this morning, the immune system pressed snooze and took a little nap. But when you hear the alarm clock the second time, it’s like someone rushing into your room and pouring a cold bucket of water on you. You have no choice but to get out of bed.
That’s what the second dose of the vaccine does. It pushes your immune response to the next level. That’s why you need two shots to get the type of efficacy that you want and be fully protected for the optimal immune response.
Collins: You were a co-leader of the team that created what became the Moderna vaccine—and you ended up getting immunized with the Moderna vaccine. What did that feel like?
Corbett: It was pretty surreal. I cried. At the end of it, I felt a lot of relief after getting my vaccine, particularly after getting the second dose. There was this breath of fresh air. It was also a birthday present. I got my second dose the day before my 35th birthday, as a birthday present to myself.
Collins: I have to admit, I cried a little bit too after my second dose. It’s just the sense of relief and incredible gratitude that we’ve reached this point. Here we are with vaccines that have 95 percent effectiveness and an incredibly good safety record, which is almost better than we could have hoped for. I’m a person of faith, so there were a lot of my prayers that went into this and it sure felt like they got answered.
Corbett: Yes, same.
Collins: You are out there a lot talking to people about the vaccines. There are still about 100 million Americans that have not yet received their first dose. Many of them still unsure about getting vaccinated. What do you say to those who are on the fence?
Corbett: In this past year, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the vaccine with people in the community. One thing that I realized, is that I don’t need to say anything unless I’m asked. I think it’s important that I listen first, instead of just speaking.
So I do that, and I try to answer people’s inquiries as specifically as possible. But people have some very broad questions. One thing that is happening is people are seeing vaccines being developed right before their eyes. That can be a little confusing. I try to explain the process, how we went from the preclinical stage all the way to the point of getting the vaccine to hundreds of millions of people. I explain how each step along the way is very highly vetted by regulatory agencies and data safety monitoring committees. I also tell them that the monitoring continues. People from the clinical trials are still being evaluated, and there’s monitoring in the real world as the vaccine is being rolled out. I think that all of those things are really important for people to know.
Collins: Another question from social media: “As a successful scientist, what advice would you give to people who are thinking about a career in science?”
Corbett: If you think you’re interested, you just have to start. There are internship programs, there are scholarship programs, there are shadowing programs all over this country and even globally that can help you get your feet wet. I think the first thing that you want to do with any career is to figure out whether or not you like it. The only way that you can do that is to just explore, explore, explore.
Collins: Didn’t you kind of roll up your sleeves and take the plunge at a young age?
Corbett: Yes, at age 16, I went off and did summer internships at the University of North Carolina. I was able to see first-hand the day-to-day life of science and what being a scientist would look like. That was really important for me. That’s what I mean by exploring.
Collins: And a follow-up question: “Is the biomedical research community welcoming to women of color?”
Corbett: Not always, frankly. I was very fortunate to have been under the wings of a lot of mentors and advocates, who have helped to advance my career to where it is now. I had great mentors at NIH. My graduate school mentor was amazing, and my main collaborator in the coronavirus field was on my dissertation committee. Even prior to this pandemic, when I was doing work that was very obscure, he checked on me very often and made sure that he had a sense of where I wanted to go and how he could help me get there, including collaborating with me.
That kind of thing is very important, particularly for women of color or anyone from a marginalized community. That’s because there will be a point where there might be a glass ceiling. Unfortunately, we don’t necessarily have the tools to break those just yet. So, someone else is going to have to break those down, and most often than not, that person is going to have to be a white man. Finding those people who are allies with you and joining in your fight for your career trajectory is very helpful.
I remember when I was choosing a college, it was a very difficult decision for me. I got accepted into Ivy League schools, and I’d gone to all of the scholarship weekends all over the country. When I was making the decision, my dad said, “Kizzy, just always go where there is love.”
That really sticks to me with every single choice that I make around my career. You want to be at a place that’s welcoming, a place that understands you, and a place that fosters the next version of who you are destined to be. You need to make sure to step back outside of the day-to-day stuff and say, “Okay, does this place love me and people like me?” It’s important to remember that’s how you thrive: when you are comfortable in and in love with your environment.
Collins: Yes, we have to move our scientific workforce into a place where it is not necessary for a white man to advocate for a talented Black woman. There’s something very wrong with that particular circumstance. As NIH Director, I want to assure you, we are motivated more than ever to change that, including through a new initiative called UNITE. We’re missing out on welcoming the talents of so many folks who currently don’t see our research agenda as theirs, and we need to change that.
Kizzmekia, this has been a lot of fun. Thank you for giving us a half-hour of your time when you’re in the midst of this crazy two-week period of moving from Bethesda to Boston. We wish you the very best for this next chapter, which I know is going to be just amazing.
Corbett: Thank you so much.
Video: COVID-19 mRNA Vaccine Q & A – Kizzmekia Corbett and Francis Collins (NIH)
Video: Lead COVID-19 scientist Kizzmekia Corbett to join Harvard Chan School faculty (Harvard University, Boston)
COVID-19 Research (NIH)
Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)
UNITE Initiative (NIH)
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
I recently spoke with World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) superstar Drew McIntyre to take down COVID-19. I made the case to all WWE fans that the best way to get past the COVID-19 pandemic is for as many people as possible to roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated. I also told everyone listening about We Can Do This, four words to type into their browsers to access evidence-based answers to questions about the COVID-19 vaccines. We spoke virtually on May 13.
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