PORTLAND, Ore. — COVID-19 variants have been to blame for the ongoing spikes in coronavirus cases worldwide. Now, a new study confirms that vaccinations and even prior infection to the virus provide significantly less protection against these strains. Researchers from Oregon Health & Science University say in order to protect against the Alpha, Beta, and now Delta variants, these findings stress the importance of doubling down on both vaccinations and public health measures during the pandemic.
Scientists looked at nearly 100 people who either received the Pfizer vaccine or previously had COVID-19 during this project. The study finds their antibodies did a poorer job of neutralizing the coronavirus after exposing their blood to both variants. The Beta variant (originating in South Africa) specifically appears to be roughly nine times as resistant in comparison to the original SARS-CoV-2 virus.
“We know that the virus continues to evolve for its own advantage,” says co-senior study author Fikadu Tafesse, Ph.D., assistant professor of molecular microbiology and immunology in the OHSU School of Medicine, in a university release.
Older patients even more at risk
That outlook may sound grim, but the research team say there’s a silver lining to these findings. From their perspective, it’s a positive that vaccination and earlier infections still provide some protection against these new variants. In support of that view, the world has seen a notable drop in both COVID-19 related deaths and hospitalizations in recent months despite the emergence of new variants.
Study authors say their research is particularly notable because they used actual virus variants isolated from real patients. Most other similar studies use non-replicative versions of the variants. The team mixed samples of the original SARS-CoV-2 virus, along with samples of Beta and Alpha (originating in the U.K.), with blood samples from 50 vaccinated people and another 44 COVID-19 survivors.
Importantly, the research team also found that people over the age of 50 show even fewer antibodies in response to the variants. In other words, even with some immunity, older adults are still susceptible to the variants.
“The people who surround our older and more vulnerable populations need to get vaccinated and minimize exposure to the virus,” explains co-senior study author Bill Messer, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of molecular microbiology and immunology and medicine (infectious diseases) in the OHSU School of Medicine. “You can’t just walk into a nursing home because they’re all vaccinated. If you’re not vaccinated, that’s still a problem.”
Will the public need another COVID booster shot?
Additionally, this work strongly indicates that vaccine booster shots will be necessary in the future, similar to an annual flu shot.
So, do these findings spell doom for our hopes of ending the pandemic? Not necessarily. Co-senior study author Marcel Curlin, M.D., associate professor of medicine (infectious diseases) in the OHSU School of Medicine, believes that with enough vaccinations and proper health safety measures the pandemic will end sooner rather than later.
“Influenza has a much larger potential for variability than the coronavirus,” he adds. “Hopefully, coronaviruses will be easier to manage.”
“We have learned to cope with influenza,” Dr. Messer concludes. “I think we will learn to do the same with COVID-19 as well.”
The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.