Many of us are enjoying the summer of 2022. We are done with Covid-19 – or at least trying not to think about it. The past two summers have been dogged by a nagging worry about it. Pubs and restaurants fight. weddings cancelled. Hotels almost empty and virtually no overseas visitors. It’s only been a few weeks since the US lifted its antigen testing requirements (remember those?) for entry, which has put many Americans off travel. Over the past two years, many of us have had stays, but it just didn’t feel right. It seems remarkable today to reflect on those times.
The truth is, with that well-worn phrase, Covid-19 hasn’t gone away, you know. But you shouldn’t worry too much because many scientists and doctors are keeping an eye on things. They are still working very hard to continue the fight against this most disturbing of diseases on your behalf.
A major summit entitled the title was recently held at the White House in the United States The future of Covid-19 vaccines. The summit once again emphasized the importance of the vaccines that we have. It has been 17 months since Ireland’s Margaret Keenan became the first person in the world to receive a Covid-19 vaccine. Does it feel like 17 months? Covid-19 has made the passage of time strange for many of us.
Ten vaccines have been approved for use – an amazing achievement. And they saved at least 20 million lives. There is hardly any other medical intervention that has had such a profound beneficial effect on people in such a short time. If vaccines had not been discovered and used so effectively, 20 million people would have died. As simple as that.
At the beginning of the summit, this was clearly stated, but also how vaccines have protected the economy. The purpose of the summit was to discuss the prospects for a new generation of vaccines that would prevent infection (as opposed to just disease) and have broader efficacy against future variants. The key topic was “A Pathway to Innovative Next Generation Vaccines”.
It was hosted by some heavyweights. dr Ashish Jha, White House Response Coordinator for Covid-19; dr Alondra Nelson, acting director of the White House Office of Science and Technology; and dr Tony Fauci, who needs no introduction at this point but has been listed as the US President’s senior medical adviser. It’s handy that the number one immunologist in the US advises you if you have Covid-19.
The meeting was attended by experts from universities, government agencies, hospitals and industry – an excellent gathering of some of the best minds working on Covid-19. people like dr Michelle Smith of the Arkansas Department of Health and Prof. Akiko Iwasaki of Yale University, speaking at the recent Covid-19 conference in TCD. Both women are involved in the development of nasal vaccines. These are vaccines that you put in your nose where they provide protection. That means you won’t get infected at all.
This is an important “holy grail” for the next generation of vaccines, and tremendous effort is being expended to produce them. Twelve are being tested, four of which are in the final testing phase.
Data for one of them was released last week by Indian company Bharat Biotech.
They tested their nasal vaccine on around 4,000 people and it was found to be safe – a very important first step in vaccine testing. They will now move on to the next phase, which will test how effective the vaccine is at preventing infection and disease. We can be optimistic that the vaccine and others like it should work just fine. The nasal vaccine should form an impenetrable barrier for the virus and prevent infection.
It’s likely that the next major phase of vaccination will involve an initial shot in your arm because it works so well to protect your lungs. And then a second shot (which will actually be a squirt) a few weeks later in your nose. Your whole body will then be protected.
The importance of this progress in relation to Covid-19 cannot be overstated. It stops the infection and helps clear the virus. Current vaccines still prevent serious illness and reduce the likelihood of hospitalization because they protect your lungs. This helps our healthcare service and takes the pressure off the staff who continue to do such tremendous work. But stopping the infection completely will prevent illnesses that can mean days off and reduce the likelihood of a long Covid. As well as ultimately giving the virus no hiding place and thus helping to eliminate it.
The other main goal is to create a vaccine that works against every variant of the virus. These so-called “pan-coronavirus” vaccines are also being tested. We’re currently playing Whack-a-Mole.
The latest to emerge is called BA.5 and specific vaccines should be available soon. But we can’t always make new vaccines depending on the latest variant and then reinject many people. This might be fine for the flu, where every flu season new variants appear and the flu vaccine is changed accordingly. But the rate at which new variants of SARS-CoV-2 are emerging is much faster than the flu. And that’s why we need vaccines against every variant that’s either among us now or that’s sure to emerge in the future. This is where a pan-coronavirus vaccine will come in. Some are already promising.
To aid in this process, it is now very likely that the outcome of the summit will be to launch Operation Warp Speed 2. The first Operation Warp Speed involved providing over $10 billion in US government funding to support the development of the first vaccines. The same is needed now to support the development of these “next generation” vaccines. Operation Warp Speed was a great example of public-private partnership and should be repeated.
We therefore know what the true endgame for Covid-19 looks like. It will be a vaccine given in two parts. The vaccine will be a pan-coronavirus vaccine that will not need to be changed and it will be given first in your arm and then in your nose. And as if by magic (but it’s not magic, it’s science) you will be saved from getting infected in the first place. But if you do get infected, you are protected from disease.
Science ended World War II with the atomic bomb. In a much better example of how useful science can be, the Covid-19 war will end with the next-generation vaccines being developed as you read this article.
In the meantime, get the booster shot when you’re called, prepare for what’s needed at least for this winter (masks on public transport and indoors in crowded places, antigen testing if you have symptoms, and working from home home) and keep the dreams alive. This dream that will come true is a vaccine that will drive away Covid-19 once and for all.
Luke O’Neill is Professor of Biochemistry in the School of Biochemistry and Immunology at Trinity College Dublin
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/next-generation-vaccines-will-finally-destroy-covid-41894729.html Next generation vaccines will finally destroy Covid