Als someone would have written a script: Last December, we hardly remember any more, we are now looking forward so energetically that the world, which was already very pandemic-tired at the time, was suddenly torn. The first Covid-19 vaccines were approved on European soil within a very short time, but at the same time the first reports of “Variants of Concern” – worrying variants – of the Sars CoV-2 pathogen appeared. And with it questions about the durability of the vaccination promise.
Editor in the features section, responsible for the “Nature and Science” section.
What if the vaccines, all of which had great results in their clinical studies so far, lose their effectiveness because the virus knows how to change genetically quickly, thereby dulling the newly acquired immune system – or being completely lost? Four months later, hardly anyone can think of it. The vaccination progress covers everything, hope grows every day, and the carefully documented vaccination successes as in Israel speak for themselves. And yet you don’t hear an immunologist or virologist giving the all-clear. Why not? One reason for this can be found far away, in India, where new highs for new infections and Covid victims have been reported for days.
Although genetic monitoring on the subcontinent is weak and precise information about the composition of the Sars-CoV-2 variants is slowly flowing, one thing is clear: In India, the emerging country with the highest vaccine production capacities in the world, exactly what virologists have been doing for months is happening warn: Extremely high case numbers of well over 300,000 new infections daily and a permanently overloaded health care system favor the spread of the variants – and possibly also the establishment of new virus mutations. Three variants – the “British” B.1.1.7, the “South African” B.1.351 and above all the “Indian” variant B.1.617 are currently in a real race. “We’ll soon see which variant has the greatest evolutionary lead,” commented Trevor Bedford, epidemiologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, on the Indian tragedy. The figures worldwide also give an idea of the risks of mutant formation: a good 5.7 million new infections in one week with almost 88,000 deaths – Sars-CoV-2 has never been so raging.
In view of the avalanche of new variants, more and more scientists are urging to radically adapt vaccine development. It’s not just about changing the genetic information packaged in most approved vaccines into the “spike protein” and thus training the immune system on the surface molecules of the mutated variants. Many experts are calling for something like broad spectrum vaccines.
Sars-CoV-2 at the crossroads
This is known from antibiotics: A means that works against different germs at the same time. This is certainly conceivable for the new generation of vaccines; mRNA vaccines would be predestined for this because of their comparatively faster production. The same applies to vector vaccines. In a publication in “Cell Reports Medicine” it becomes clear why this strategy may be necessary. Jesse Bloom, a colleague of Bedford’s at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, compares Sars-CoV-2 with the measles pathogens and influenza viruses.