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As new strains emerge the global vaccination drive has started to look less remarkable

india's covid vaccine moves to phase 2 of human trials

Serious doubts have started emerging about the vaccination efforts being undertaken around the world with Bloomberg recently publishing an article about the failure of scientists to keep up with the constantly mutating virus.

The article stated that the vaccinated people appear to be getting the coronavirus at a surprisingly high rate. Though it is evident vaccination still provides powerful protection against the virus, there’s growing concern that vaccinated people may be more vulnerable to serious illness than previously thought.

Professor Eleanor Riley, an immunologist from the University of Edinburgh, UK said, “We could be digging ourselves into a hole, for a very long time, where we think we can only keep Covid away by boosting every year.”

Even the government-funded BBC recently published an article with the headline – Is catching COVID now better than more vaccines?

Why the concern about booster vaccination drive?

One of the biggest sources of doubt has emerged from the situation developing in Israel. Israel which vaccinated its population at an astonishing rate has been facing a new surge of infections. Subsequently, the experts and politicians there have started stressing the need to get a third booster shot.
However, a growing number of scientists and researchers have started expressing doubt that whether such top-up vaccine doses will ever be able to eliminate the infection.

Dr Salman Zarka recently told the Israel Parliament, “I don’t want to frighten you, but this is the data. Unfortunately, the numbers don’t lie. A massive surge in infections in ultra-vaxxed Israel is pointing to a complicated path ahead.

Vaccination hesitancy – genuine concerns or paranoia?

COVID vaccine hesitancy has been one of the biggest concerns globally since the launch of the start of the pandemic. While some expressed doubts whether the vaccine was developed by cutting corners as it was developed in a record time. Others had absurd conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 vaccines being a tool to control the population by the global elite. However, the most genuine concern about the effectiveness of the COVID vaccines has been the mutating nature of the virus itself.

Interestingly, a survey carried out by Solis Arce across Africa, South Asia, Latin America, Russia and the United States found that vaccine hesitancy was the highest among high-income countries topped by Russia where just around 30 per cent of the people were ready to accept the vaccines as safe and reliable. Whereas the vaccine acceptance rate among the low-income countries was 80.3%.

The anatomy of vaccination

COVID-19 is caused by a type of coronavirus that uses spike protein as a key to enter into a human cell. The virus also needs 28 other proteins to hijack a cell and make thousands of copies of itself. But the vaccines, be it Covaxin, Moderna or Pfizer all just train the body to identify the one part of the virus – the spike protein.

This is the critical part of the virus to make antibodies to, and the results – by keeping most out of hospital – have been spectacular. But those who got infected with the virus got a broader immune response than those who were vaccinated. This is primarily because those who got infected had T-cells that could target all the 28 proteins that the virus uses to spread and not just the spike protein.

Also, the location of the antibodies that fight the virus is of even greater importance than the number of proteins a COVID vaccine can help identify.

There is a whole different suite of antibodies (known as immunoglobulin As) in the nose and lungs, compared with those (immunoglobulin Gs) that we measure in the blood. Since the virus first targets the nose and lungs, the jab in the arm will be much less effective than the natural infection through the nose.

Prof Paul Klenerman who researches T-cells at the University of Oxford says, “The location of an infection makes a difference even if it’s the same virus, so we would expect important differences between natural infection and vaccines.”

Limitation of booster doses

Some of the coronavirus along with other viruses – rhinoviruses, adenoviruses and parainfluenza are known to cause common colds. One of the limitations to develop a vaccine for the common cold has been the constantly mutating viruses. There are more than 150 strains of viruses circulating at any one time. It is currently impossible to develop one single vaccine to protect against all the strains and types. On top of that new booster vaccine doses have to be developed each year to cover for the new strains that emerge.

Scientists have started to face similar types of hurdles with COVID-19 too as new strains emerge adding complexity to developing booster doses.

Another researcher Professor Finn argues that it could be a lot cheaper and simpler to let the infection continue on its own as every time our immune system gets exposed to the virus, it will get a little bit stronger and this process will continue till old age when our immune system ultimately fails. The professor warns that we could end up in a cycle of boosting without ever finding whether it was necessary.

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