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

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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


Tracking the Evolution of a ‘Variant of Concern’ in Brazil

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P.1 Variant of SARS-CoV-2 in the center of standard SARS-CoV-2. Arrows move out from the variant

By last October, about three out of every four residents of Manaus, Brazil already had been infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 [1]. And yet, despite hopes of achieving “herd immunity” in this city of 2.2 million in the Amazon region, the virus came roaring back in late 2020 and early 2021 to cause a second wave of illness and death [2]. How is this possible?

The answer offers a lesson in viral evolution, especially when an infectious virus such as SARS-CoV-2 replicates and spreads through a population largely unchecked. In a recent study in the journal Science, researchers tied the city’s resurgence of SARS-CoV-2 to the emergence and rapid spread of a new SARS-CoV-2 “variant of concern” known as P.1 [3]. This variant carries a unique constellation of mutations that allow it not only to sneak past the human immune system and re-infect people, but also to be about twice as transmissible as earlier variants.

To understand how this is possible, consider that each time the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 makes copies of itself in an infected person, there’s a chance a mistake will be made. Each mistake can produce a new variant that may go on to make more copies of itself. In most cases, those random errors are of little to no consequence. This is evolution in action.

But sometimes a spelling change can occur that benefits the virus. In the special case of patients with suppressed immune systems, the virus can have ample opportunity to accrue an unusually high number of mutations. Variants carrying beneficial mutations can make more copies of themselves than other variants, allowing them to build their numbers and spread to cause more infection.

At this advanced stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, such rapidly spreading new variants remain cause for serious concern. That includes variants such as B.1.351, which originated in South Africa; B.1.1.7 which emerged in the United Kingdom; and now P.1 from Manaus, Brazil.

In the new study, Nuno Faria and Samir Bhatt, Imperial College London, U.K., and Ester Cerdeira Sabino, Universidade de Sao Paulo, Brazil, and their colleagues sequenced SARS-CoV-2 genomes from 184 patient samples collected in Manaus in November and December 2020. The research was conducted under the auspices of the Brazil-UK Centre for Arbovirus Discovery, Diagnosis, Genomics and Epidemiology (CADDE), a project focused on viral genomics and epidemiology for public health.

Those genomic data revealed the P.1 variant had acquired 17 new mutations. Ten were in the spike protein, which is the segment of the virus that binds onto human cells and the target of current COVID-19 vaccines. In fact, the new work reveals that three of these spike protein mutations make it easier for the P.1 spike to bind the human ACE2 receptor, which is SARS-CoV-2’s preferred entry point.

The first P.1 variant case was detected by genomic surveillance on December 6, 2020, after which it spread rapidly. Through further evolutionary analysis, the team estimates that P.1 must have emerged, undetected for a brief time, in mid-November 2020.

To understand better how the P.1 variant led to such an explosion of new COVID-19 cases, the researchers developed a mathematical model that integrated the genomic data with mortality data. The model suggests that P.1 may be 1.7 to 2.4 times more transmissible than earlier variants. They also estimate that a person previously infected with a variant other than P.1 will have only 54 percent to 79 percent protection against a subsequent infection with P.1.

The researchers also observed an increase in mortality following the emergence of the P.1 variant. However, it’s not yet clear if that’s an indication P.1 is inherently more deadly than earlier variants. It’s possible the increased mortality is related primarily to the extra stress on the healthcare system in Manaus from treating so many people with COVID-19.

These findings are yet another reminder of the importance of genomic surveillance and international data sharing for detecting and characterizing emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants quickly. It’s worth noting that at about the same time this variant was detected in Brazil, it also was reported in four individuals who had traveled to Brazil from Japan. The P.1 variant continues to spread rapidly across Brazil. It has also been detected in more than 37 countries [4], including the United States, where it now accounts for more than 1 percent of new cases [5].

No doubt you are wondering what this means for vaccines, such as the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines, that have been used to immunize (at least one dose) over 140 million people in the United States. Here the news is encouraging. Serum from individuals who received the Pfizer vaccine had titers of neutralizing antibodies that were only slightly reduced for P.1 compared to the original SARS-CoV-2 virus [6]. Therefore, the vaccine is predicted to be highly protective. This is another example of a vaccine providing more protection than a natural infection.

The United States has made truly remarkable progress in combating COVID-19, but we must heed this lesson from Manaus: this terrible pandemic isn’t over just yet. While the P.1 variant remains at low levels here for now, the “U.K. variant” B.1.1.7 continues to spread rapidly and now is the most prevalent variant circulating in the U.S., accounting for 44 percent of new cases [6]. Fortunately, the mRNA vaccines also work well against B.1.1.7.

We must continue to do absolutely everything possible, individually and collectively, to prevent these new SARS-CoV-2 variants from slowing or even canceling the progress made over the last year. We need to remain vigilant for just a while longer, while encouraging our friends, neighbors, and loved ones to get vaccinated.

References:

[1] Three-quarters attack rate of SARS-CoV-2 in the Brazilian Amazon during a largely unmitigated epidemic. Buss, L. F., C. A. Prete, Jr., C. M. M. Abrahim, A. C. Dye, V. H. Nascimento, N. R. Faria and E. C. Sabino et al. (2021). Science 371(6526): 288-292.

[2] Resurgence of COVID-19 in Manaus, Brazil, despite high seroprevalence. Sabino EC, Buss LF, Carvalho MPS, Prete Jr CCA, Crispim MAE, Fraiji NA, Pereira RHM, Paraga KV, Peixoto PS, Kraemer MUG, Oikawa MJ, Salomon T, Cucunuba ZM, Castro MC, Santos AAAS, Nascimento VH, Pereira HS, Ferguson NM, Pybus OG, Kucharski A, Busch MP, Dye C, Faria NR Lancet. 2021 Feb 6;397(10273):452-455.

[3] Genomics and epidemiology of the P.1 SARS-CoV-2 lineage in Manaus, Brazil. Faria NR, Mellan TA, Whittaker C, Claro IM, Fraiji NA, Carvalho MDPSS, Pybus OG, Flaxman S, Bhatt S, Sabino EC et al. Science. 2021 Apr 14:eabh2644.

[4] GRINCH Global Report Investigating novel coronavirus haplotypes. PANGO Lineages.

[5] COVID Data Tracker. Variant Proportions. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

[6] Antibody evasion by the P.1 strain of SARS-CoV-2. Dejnirattisai W, Zhou D, Supasa P, Liu C, Mongkolsapaya J, Ren J, Stuart DI, Screaton GR, et al. Cell. 2021 Mar 30:S0092-8674(21)00428-1.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Brazil-UK Centre for Arbovirus Discovery, Diagnosis, Genomics and Epidemiology (CADDE)

Nuno Faria (Imperial College, London, U.K.)

Samir Bhatt (Imperial College)

Ester Cerdeira Sabino (Universidade de Sao Paulo, Brazil)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases


Israeli Study Offers First Real-World Glimpse of COVID-19 Vaccines in Action

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COVID-19 Update: Large scale clinical trial
Credit: Getty Images/Hispanolistic

There are many reasons to be excited about the three COVID-19 vaccines that are now getting into arms across the United States. At the top of the list is their extremely high level of safety and protection against SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Of course, those data come from clinical trials that were rigorously conducted under optimal research conditions. One might wonder how well those impressive clinical trial results will translate to the real world.

A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine [1] offers an early answer for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. The Pfizer product is an mRNA vaccine that was found in a large clinical trial to be up to 95 percent effective in preventing COVID-19, leading to its Emergency Use Authorization last December.

The new data, which come from Israel, are really encouraging. Based on a detailed analysis of nearly 600,000 people vaccinated in that nation, a research team led by Ran Balicer, The Clalit Research Institute, Tel Aviv, found that the risk of symptomatic COVID-19 infection dropped by 94 percent a week after individuals had received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine. That’s essentially the same very high level of protection that was seen in the data gathered in the earlier U.S. clinical trial.

The study also found that just a single shot of the two-dose vaccine led to a 57 percent drop in the incidence of symptomatic COVID-19 infections and a 62 percent decline in the risk of severe illness after two to three weeks. Note, however, that the protection clearly got better after folks received the second dose. While it’s too soon to say how many lives were saved in Israel thanks to full vaccination, the early data not surprisingly suggest a substantial reduction in mortality.

Israel, which is about as large as New Jersey with a population of around 9 million, currently has the world’s highest COVID-19 vaccination rate. In addition to its relatively small size, Israel also has a national health system and one of the world’s largest integrated health record databases, making it a natural choice to see how well one of the new vaccines was working in the real world.

The study took place from December 20, 2020, the start of Israel’s first vaccination drive, through February 1, 2021. This also coincided with Israel’s third and largest wave of COVID-19 infections and illness. During this same period, the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first detected in the United Kingdom, gradually became Israel’s dominant strain. That’s notable because the U.K. variant spreads from person-to-person more readily and may be associated with an increased risk of death compared with other variants [2].

Balicer and his colleagues reviewed data on 596,618 fully vaccinated individuals, ages 16 and older. A little less than one third—about 170,000—of the people studied were over age 60. To see how well the vaccine worked, the researchers carefully matched each of the vaccinated individuals in the study to an unvaccinated person with similar demographics as well as risks of infection, severe illness, and other important health attributes.

The results showed that the vaccine works remarkably well. In fact, the researchers determined that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is similarly effective—94 percent to 96 percent—across adults in different age groups. It also appears that the vaccine works about equally well for individuals age 70 and older as it does for younger people.

So far, more than 92 million total vaccine doses have been administered in the U.S. With the Janssen COVID-19 vaccine (also called the Johnson & Johnson vaccine) now coming online, that number will rise even faster. For those of you who haven’t had the opportunity just yet, these latest findings should come as added encouragement to roll up your sleeve for any one of the authorized vaccines as soon as your invitation arrives.

References:

[1] BNT162b2 mRNA Covid-19 Vaccine in a Nationwide Mass Vaccination Setting. Dagan N, Barda N, Kepten E, Miron O, Perchik S, Katz MA, Hernán MA, Lipsitch M, Reis B, Balicer RD. N Engl J Med. 2021 Feb 24.

[2] Emerging SARS-CoV-2 Variants. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Clalit Research Institute (Tel Aviv, Israel)

Ran Balicer (Clalit Research Institute)