Many infectious disease specialists say that the first generation of coronavirus vaccines will be ineffective within a year and that some populations will need new or modified shots.
In a survey of 77 epidemiologists from 28 countries, two-thirds said coronavirus mutations could render most of the current vaccines ineffective within a year. Nearly one-third predicted nine months or less and about 18% estimated six months or less, according to the People’s Vaccine Alliance.
The survey, released Tuesday, was conducted between Feb. 17 and March 25 and included responses from epidemiologists, virologists and infection disease specialists from Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University, Imperial College, the University of Cambridge, the Danish Medical Association and the University of Cape Town, among others.
The majority — 88% — said it is more likely for vaccine-resistant mutations to appear if low vaccine coverage in many countries persists. Only 10% of people in most poor countries will be vaccinated in the next year at the current inoculation rate, warned the People’s Vaccine Alliance, a coalition of more than 50 organizations including Oxfam, UNAIDS and the African Alliance.
“The solution to the variants is to vaccinate as quickly as possible. I think it is also important to remember that even in the face of problematic variance, the vaccines are able to do what matters: prevent serious disease, prevent hospitalization and prevent death,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar for Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security who was not included in the survey.
“We know that the developing world is going to lag the developed world in terms of axing uptake, and that will make the pandemic last longer on a global scale even after this is controlled in many other countries with vaccine access,” Dr. Adalja said.
About 18% of survey respondents said they thought it would take two years or longer before mutations make current vaccines ineffective. Fewer than 8% said they thought mutations would never make current vaccines ineffective.
“I’m not at all surprised at these results because I think virtually all of my colleagues believe that the COVID virus is not going to ‘disappear’ or go away, that it will be integrated into our microbiome, if you will, and we’ll be living with it the way we live with influenza,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University.
“The first generation vaccines will not optimally provide protection against these new variants. So it stands to reason that just as we become vaccinated against influenza on an annual basis principally because that virus changes and we have to keep up with that virus, I think most of us anticipate that we will also be doing something similar with COVID,” added Dr. Schaffner, who was not involved in the study.
The U.S. has reported more than 11,569 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant from the U.K., 312 cases of the B.1.351 variant from South Africa and 172 cases of the P.1 variant from Brazil, as of Tuesday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Health officials say these variants appear to spread more easily and quickly than other types. Experts in the U.K. have reported that its variant may have an increased risk of death, but more research is needed, the CDC says. Also, Brazil’s P.1 variant has additional mutations that could affect antibodies’ ability to recognize it.
The CDC said evidence suggests that vaccination-generated antibodies recognize the variants, adding that more studies are underway.
Lawrence Gostin, a global health law professor at Georgetown University, said it is plausible that vaccines will lose effectiveness as the virus mutates but there is no reason to panic.
“Current generation vaccines can be adapted to new variants. We should not be complacent, but it is likely that science can stay ahead of the variants,” said Mr. Gostin, who did not participate in the survey.
He noted that the COVAX facility, a global initiative aimed at equitable vaccine distribution, is striving to vaccinate 20% or more of populations in low-income countries.
“It is unclear whether it will meet this goal. In any event, at these low levels the virus will have ample opportunity to mutate,” he said. “We need to donate doses to COVAX and also transfer technology to low- and middle-income countries so they can manufacture the vaccines to scale.”
According to the survey, 74% of respondents said open sharing of technology and intellectual property could help boost global vaccine coverage.