‘Full, booster doses key as new variants emerge’
This insight was shared by Akiko Iwasaki, professor of immunobiology at Yale University’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute. She spoke virtually at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit 2021.
Increasing immunity to Sars-CoV-2 is now crucial, and countries must focus on full doses and boosters as soon as possible, one of the world’s top immunologists said, calling for more vigilance as concern grows over the Omicron variant and the threat it could pose.
The insight was shared by professor Akiko Iwasaki, professor of immunobiology at Yale University’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute, during a session on Covid-19 at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, which opened for a five-day hybrid conclave on Tuesday.
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“Most crucial is to elevate the immune responses from current vaccines. Getting full doses and boosters will be very important. Even if that is inadequate, it will still protect us from Omicron,” Iwasaki said, while adding that there may be a case to look at giving people booster doses sooner than current timelines.
The discovery of the Omicron variant by scientists in South Africa has renewed concerns of a resurgence in Covid-19 across the world as initial signs showed the virus to have become significantly more transmissible and potentially more resistant.
Iwasaki, who was in conversation with health communications specialist Sanchita Sharma, said studies are yet to determine the nature of the threat the new variant of concern (VOC) poses. “We don’t know many things with this variant yet. How much more transmissible is it? How virulent it is? Or how well vaccines will protect against it?”
“But what we do know is it has a lot of mutations. Therefore any pre-existing immunity from vaccines or a past infection may be less effective in preventing and disease,” she added.
Iwasaki also suggested that there may be a case to reconsider the gap between vaccinations and booster shots. “In the US, the current recommendation for [when to take] boosters is six months [after the second dose]. But we know that immunity is waning and there are these new variants out there, and it makes me wonder if boosters should be implemented even sooner?”
The professor supported mixing of vaccines, saying this could help create a sort of hybrid immunity and allow countries to use doses that are available.
A little under 48% of India’s adult population has received two full doses of a Covid-19 vaccine, and government experts have said that they will consider the question of allowing booster shots for at least some groups of people.
Iwasaki and her team of immunologists at Yale have published over 20 studies since the start of the pandemic, offering key evidence into some of the early mysteries surrounding Sars-CoV-2, including crucial answers on how the immune system combats the virus.
The professor supported the idea of mandatory vaccinations that several countries have adopted. “Mandatory vaccinations are very important to contain the virus, especially in places where infection is really spreading, and especially in professions with high public contact such as health care providers. I support such mandates, which make sense to me as an immunologist,” she said.
Is the worst over?If the global population is not vaccinated soon enough, worse variants can arise, she said. “I don’t have a crystal ball but I am hoping the worst is behind us – the worst can be behind us if we vaccinate enough people. And the worst may yet to come if we don’t vaccinate the world if a more transmissible or a virulent variant emerges,” she said.
The next wave of infections, she added, will depend on how people behave during the winter, when indoor, large gathering in spaces that are not well-ventilated could lead to new infections. “I am not sure this is the time to relax measures to contain the virus.”
Iwasaki, who is widely regarded as one of the most authoritative voices on Covid-19 science on social media, also spoke about how the pandemic intensified her science communication work.
“I think my role has shifted quite a bit in trying to dispel some misinformation because it becomes quite toxic and drives hesitancy. It’s very important not just for scientists but also women of colour to speak on these issues,” she said.
Iwasaki, who has advocated for women in science, said “there is still implicit bias against women and women of colour”, which was exacerbated during the pandemic. “But I hope that changes after the pandemic.”
Will the work look different a year from now? “A new normal is achievable sooner if we vaccinate the world, and keep wearing masks and learn to live with this virus with humility because we don’t know when new variants will emerge,” she said.
“I hope a year from now, the world will be a different place,” she said.