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COVID vaccines could lose their punch within a year, experts say


Two-thirds of epidemiologists from leading academic institutions say the world will need new or modified vaccines for COVID-19 within a year, new research shows.

Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine trials South_agency/Getty Images

In a survey of 77 epidemiologists from 28 countries by the People’s Vaccine Alliance, 66.2% predicted that the world has a year or less before variants make current vaccines ineffective. The People’s Vaccine Alliance is a coalition of more than 50 organizations, including the African Alliance, Oxfam, Public Citizen, and UNAIDS (the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS).

Almost a third (32.5%) of those surveyed said ineffectiveness would happen in 9 months or less; 18.2% said 6 months or less.

Paul A. Offit, MD, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said in an interview that, while it’s hard to say whether vaccines could become ineffective in that time frame, “It’s perfectly reasonable to think it could happen.”

The good news, said Dr. Offit, who was not involved with the survey, is that SARS-CoV-2 mutates slowly, compared with other viruses such as influenza.

“To date,” he said, “the mutations that have occurred are not far enough away from the immunity induced by your natural infection or immunization such that one isn’t protected at least against severe and critical disease.”

That’s the goal of vaccines, he noted: “to keep people from suffering mightily.”

A line may be crossed

“And so far that’s happening, even with the variants,” Dr. Offit said. “That line has not been crossed. But I think we should assume that it might be.”

Dr. Offit said it will be critical to monitor anyone who gets hospitalized who is known to have been infected or fully vaccinated. Then countries need to get really good at sequencing those viruses.

The great majority of those surveyed (88%) said that persistently low vaccine coverage in many countries would make it more likely that vaccine-resistant mutations will appear.

Coverage comparisons between countries are stark.

Many countries haven’t given a single vaccine dose

While rich countries are giving COVID-19 vaccinations at the rate of a person a second, many of the poorest countries have given hardly any vaccines, the People’s Vaccine Alliance says.

Additionally, according to researchers at the Global Health Innovation Center at Duke University, Durham, N.C., high- and upper-middle–income countries, which represent one-fifth of the world’s population, have bought about 6 billion doses. But low- and lower-middle–income countries, which make up four-fifths of the population, have bought only about 2.6 billion, an article in Nature reports.

“You’re only as strong as your weakest country,” Dr. Offit said. “If we haven’t learned that what happens in other countries can [affect the global population], we haven’t been paying attention.”

Gregg Gonsalves, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology at Yale University, New Haven, Conn., one of the academic centers surveyed, didn’t specify a timeline for when vaccines would become ineffective, but said in a press release that the urgency for widespread global vaccination is real.

“Unless we vaccinate the world,” he said, “we leave the playing field open to more and more mutations, which could churn out variants that could evade our current vaccines and require booster shots to deal with them.”


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