Is herd immunity impossible when additional COVID mutations emerge?

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Because the Delta variety is far more transmissible, even more people will need to be fully vaccinated in order to attain herd immunity.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the term “herd immunity” has been thrown around. It occurs when a considerable part of a population becomes immune to or protected from infection, resulting in a significant reduction in the spread of the infection even among the unprotected.

It can be accomplished in the following ways:

  1. Natural infection: when a large enough population has been infected with the disease and has developed naturally acquired antibodies that protect them from infection in the future.
  2. Vaccines: when a large number of people in a population have been vaccinated against a disease, allowing them to develop protective antibodies without needing to be infected, which are helpful in preventing serious infection in the future.

When it comes to COVID-19, we already know that attempting to achieve herd immunity through natural infection can be disastrous. We’ve seen how the virus can ravage countries, claiming the lives of over 4.3 million people globally. Not only that, but the effects of extended COVID can cause major sickness in the acute phase and have an impact on people’s lives and livelihoods. We also don’t know how effective or long-lasting antibodies acquired through natural infection are, and there are many reports of patients contracting the coronavirus multiple times.

Vaccines, on the other hand, have successfully prevented dangerous diseases such as smallpox, polio, diphtheria, pertussis, rubella, and many others from spreading. Unvaccinated people are far more likely to develop severe illness if they contract COVID. While those who have been vaccinated against COVID may experience mild, short-term side effects after receiving their shot, those who have not been vaccinated are far more likely to develop severe illness if they contract the virus.

Vaccines, we know, provide stronger protection than spontaneous infection, with antibodies that stay longer and are more effective against serious illness. The World Health Organization (WHO) believes that herd immunity should be achieved by vaccination rather than by letting a disease to spread across any segment of the community, as this would result in unnecessary cases and deaths.

It’s also worth mentioning that the vaccination path chosen to achieve “herd immunity” is critical; the most at-risk groups in a society must be vaccinated first, as they stand to lose a lot if they become ill. In the case of COVID, this implies prioritizing vaccination of the elderly and those with underlying health issues, providing them with some protection while herd immunity is established.

Although attempting to develop herd immunity through vaccination programs makes sense, there are obstacles. First, much as with naturally acquired antibodies, we don’t know how long vaccine-induced antibodies will provide protection, and additional research is needed to determine whether the vaccines assist prevent virus transmission. Then there’s the issue of vaccination apprehension and misinformation, both of which are preventing vast numbers of individuals from getting the vaccine.

The greatest difficulty, however, is the unequal distribution of vaccines over the world. As the most affluent countries roll out efficient vaccination programs for their own populations, many poorer countries are left without vaccines, leaving them vulnerable to massive outbreaks of illness; ideal breeding grounds for new variations resistant to the effects of the original vaccines.

When it comes to COVID, the concept of “herd immunity” is itself a fallacy. We’ve seen how antibodies developed naturally during infection do not render you “immune” to the virus, and many people have reported re-infections… Protection, rather than immunity, is a more practical idea for COVID.

The exact percentage of a population that must be vaccinated against COVID in order to develop herd immunity is a matter of contention among scientists. In general, the more infectious an illness is, the greater the percentage of people who must be vaccinated to obtain herd immunity. Because measles is such a contagious disease, herd immunity against it necessitates the vaccination of approximately 95% of a population. The remaining 5% will be safe since measles will not spread among persons who have been vaccinated. Because polio is less infectious, the threshold is around 80%.

It is unknown what percentage of the population needs be vaccinated against COVID in order to begin establishing herd immunity. This is a crucial field of research, and the results will likely differ depending on the community, the vaccine, the populations targeted for immunization, and other factors. However, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is extremely contagious, with airborne particles that remain in the air for hours and can be inhaled as the major mode of transmission.

Of course, the Delta variant’s increased transmissibility has shifted the pandemic’s trajectory, implying that even more people will need to be completely vaccinated than previously expected to attain herd immunity. According to some scientists, achieving herd immunity against Delta requires vaccinating 88 percent or more of the population, which may not be possible given the challenges outlined earlier and the fact that vaccines are less effective against the Delta variant than they are against the original variant and the Alpha variant.

When it comes to COVID, the concept of “herd immunity” is itself a fallacy. We’ve seen how antibodies acquired naturally during infection do not render you “immune” to the virus, and many people have reported re-infections. Vaccines work in the same way; their goal isn’t to make people “immune” to the virus, but to protect them from becoming extremely ill if they contract it. This is in contrast to prior vaccination programs, such as those for measles and smallpox, in which vaccinations did provide disease immunity.

Protection, rather than immunity, is a more practical idea for COVID. The goal is to vaccinate as much of the world’s population as rapidly as possible, especially younger age groups such as 12- to 15-year-olds. Because of their vaccine-induced antibodies, those who have been vaccinated should be able to fight off the virus before it has a chance to split and grow inside them, allowing it to spread to others.

It’s possible that, like the flu virus, we’re aiming for maximum population protection through vaccines rather than herd immunity. To be honest, protecting individuals from major sickness and preventing overburdening of healthcare systems may be sufficient.

WHO’s Progress Report urges countries to postpone COVID boosters

Countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and Israel have stated that they want to start providing susceptible people a third COVID booster dose to assist raise their protective antibodies. Israel has already began its booster program, and the United Kingdom will follow suit in September, just in time for the winter season. However, there is growing fear that these booster doses would come at the price of poorer countries, which are already struggling to procure enough vaccines to vaccinate large populations. In some places of Africa, for example, barely 2% of the population has been vaccinated.

[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]
[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

The WHO has highlighted worries about booster doses, and has issued a statement urging richer nations to halt them until at least the end of September, in order to ensure that at least 10% of each country’s population is vaccinated. “To make that happen, we need everyone’s cooperation,” the statement said, “especially the handful of countries and firms that control the worldwide supply of vaccines.”

“Everyone with influence — Olympic athletes, investors, business leaders, church leaders, and every individual in their own family and community – should support our call for a booster shot moratorium,” the petition said.

The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently stated that fully vaccinated Americans do not require booster doses, while it would continue to study the evidence as it becomes available. Meanwhile, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) has stated that it is too early to determine whether booster injections are required because there is insufficient data from immunization campaigns and current studies to determine how long vaccine protection will persist.

The epidemic and vaccination race have brought to light the enormous health disparities that previously existed around the world. But those countries rushing to acquire booster shots at the expense of poorer countries must remember that they may be paving the way for more varieties. Because significant swaths of the world are still uninfected, the virus can infect enormous groups of individuals. When a virus infects more people, it has a better chance of dividing and spreading. The more it divides and multiplies, the more likely it is to develop a mutation that renders it immune to the immunological response elicited by current vaccinations.

If this happens, and this new altered variety makes its way back to the richer countries, it will reverse all of the vaccine work that has been done thus far. This results in a loop of needing additional boosters to combat new variations.

Prioritizing the unvaccinated makes sense, but we’ll need wealthy governments to show compassion for individuals who reside in other countries, which has proven difficult for those in positions of power in the past.

The good news is that combining COVID vaccines results in a positive immunological response, according to a study

The use of different combinations of authorized COVID vaccines for first and second vaccination doses was explored in a UK vaccine experiment, and it was discovered that mixing brands provides good protection against the virus.

The Com-Cov research, conducted by the Oxford Vaccine Group, monitored 830 people over the age of 50. The study looked at the efficacy of two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, two doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, or one dose followed by the other; the doses were separated by four weeks.

It looked at which vaccine combinations produced the best immediate neutralising antibody response as well as the best “T-cell” response, which is required for long-term protection and permits the immune system to kill the coronavirus if the vaccinated person comes into contact with it again.

Its findings revealed the following:

  • Pfizer, then AstraZeneca, generated stronger neutralizing antibodies and T cell responses than Pfizer, then AstraZeneca.
  • Pfizer had the highest neutralising antibody response after two doses, and AstraZeneca had the highest T cell response, followed by Pfizer.
[Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]
[Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

This research demonstrates that combining COVID vaccination doses gives effective immediate and long-term protection. Mixed doses are already being used in several countries. Following concerns over uncommon but significant blood clots rather than efficacy, Spain and Germany are giving the Pfizer or Moderna mRNA vaccines as a second dose to younger people who have already had a first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

This might mean that if a poorer country does not have enough of one type of vaccination, a second shot can be given with a different brand. If booster shots become more widely utilized, it may have ramifications for persons who received one brand of vaccine for their first two shots but received a different brand as a booster.

Should I vaccinate my 16-year-old in the doctor’s office?

While several governments are pushing to vaccinate younger age groups, the United Kingdom has been slow to follow suit, only recently recommending the mRNA Pfizer vaccine to all 16- and 17-year-olds. This prompted a swarm of worried parents to contact me about their children receiving immunizations.

Vaccination children and adolescents is not as straightforward as vaccinating adults against COVID-19; they are significantly less likely to have major illnesses or require hospitalization, though they are not totally immune. The very unusual side effect of myocarditis or pericarditis (inflammation of portions of the heart) associated with the mRNA vaccine (Pfizer and Moderna) is also a cause for concern, but it is usually curable. On the other hand, as the Delta variation tends to attack younger age groups more fiercely than previous versions, the UK has witnessed an upsurge in younger persons needing hospitalization with COVID, while press accounts from the US tell of scores of youngsters being hospitalized with the virus. Furthermore, all age groups, especially the young, are concerned about lengthy COVID.

So when a mother called to ask my advice on whether her 16-year-old son should get the vaccine, I listened to her concerns and answered her questions. It is critical for clinicians and scientists not to impose their views on others; rather, our role is to present information and allow them to make an informed decision. I’ve heard experts mock individuals who have real concerns about the vaccine far too often, but let’s be honest: there’s so much disinformation out there that it’s easy for people to become confused. At the same time, we must not gloss over any vaccine side effects and be transparent about any risks — this is the only way to gain the public’s trust.

[Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]
[Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

I told this mother that, while there had been reports of heart inflammation perhaps linked to the mRNA vaccinations, the benefits of obtaining it in younger individuals much outweighed the dangers, and that, in my opinion, her kid should schedule his.

She thanked me for my advise and said she would think about it and talk to her son about what I had told her. In truth, as a 16-year-old, he is mature enough to make his own decisions and would not require his mother’s permission to receive the vaccine, but it is always a good idea to involve parents in medical treatments involving minors. My hope is that this family will now be able to make an informed decision based on facts rather than falsehoods found on the internet.

Question from a reader: Do mRNA vaccinations affect my DNA?

It’s crucial to note that, while mRNA vaccines are relatively new, the research underlying them has been ongoing for decades. They’ve been tested for flu, Zika, rabies, and cytomegalovirus in the past (CMV).

They act by delivering a small bit of genetic material called mRNA into cells and commanding them to produce harmless replicas of the coronavirus’s “spike protein” on the virus’s outer surface. This version of the spike protein is recognized by the body as foreign, prompting an immune response that will recognize and destroy the actual coronavirus if it comes into contact with it in the future.

The cells break down the genetic material, the mRNA, and get rid of it once the message from the mRNA has been conveyed.

mRNA isn’t the same as DNA because it can’t bind to it or modify its structure. It’s also extremely delicate, frequently disintegrating in three days. The mRNA material from the vaccines never makes it into the nucleus of your cells, which is where your DNA is housed, so the answer is no, the mRNA vaccines cannot change or affect your DNA.


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