We know vaccines are working against new COVID variants. Now scientists are starting to understand why.
With new variants of COVID-19 emerging, experts fear that the virus may have developed mutations that allow it to outmaneuver existing vaccines.
Early laboratory studies were worrying, showing that vaccines appeared to produce far fewer virus-fighting antibodies against some of the newer variants. But real-world experience did not address these concerns - people seemed to develop good protection even when exposed to new varieties.
Now, after months of research, vaccine experts around the world are learning that vaccines are still largely working thanks to other important parts of the body's immune system - even if these antibodies are not seen in large numbers.
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"One of the reasons the vaccines against variants exist is because they trigger a wide range of immune responses," said Dr. Dan Barouch, director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. "We speculate that several immune parameters may help protect this vaccine against variants."
In a recent study, Barouch and a few colleagues showed that Johnson & Johnson's vaccine caused all different parts of the immune system to respond. Crucially, the study helped strengthen the role of so-called "killer" T cells in fighting viral variants, including the worrying "beta" variant first identified in South America.
PHOTO: A commuter is injected with Johnson & Johnson's vaccine for COVID-19 during the opening of MTA's public vaccination program in a subway station in the Brooklyn neighborhood of New York on May 12, 2021. (Brendan Mcdermid / Reuters)
"Killer T cells are important because they can actually identify and get rid of an infected cell and are therefore very good at cleaning up infections," says Dr. Paul Goepfert, Professor of Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and an expert in vaccine design.
The body's ability to use multiple parts of the immune system after immunization against the original strain of COVID-19 still results in robust protection against multiple variants.
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When news of a worrying variant first surfaced in the UK in December, now known as the alpha variant, some vaccine experts feared that the new version of the virus could undercut vaccines.
The news was even more troubling as the vaccines currently available were only just getting approved. In the weeks that followed, the world learned about the beta variant from South Africa and the gamma variant from Brazil.
Vaccine manufacturers were preparing to test new booster vaccines that specifically targeted these variants, but in the real world, vaccines still seemed to offer relatively good protection to people in countries where new variants were prevalent.
Barouch's new research offers some clues as to why.
PHOTO: Sisters Guadalupe Flores, 15, right, and Estela Flores, 13, left, from East Los Angeles, are diagnosed with COVID-19 at Esteban E. Torres High School in Los Angeles on Thursday, May 27, 2021 - Vaccine vaccine from Pfizer (Damian Dovarganes / AP)
The human immune system is made up of several components that help fight viral infections by making antibodies, a protein designed to neutralize foreign bodies, and also looking for infections, destroying them, and remembering them so that it can come back next time can fight better and faster.
Like previous studies, this study showed that the variants have mutations that are not well recognized by the antibodies generated after vaccination or infection. In fact, the antibody levels of the J&J vaccine were 5.0 times lower than the COVID-19 beta variant first identified in South Africa and 3.3 times lower vaccinations than the gamma variant first identified in Brazil.
But antibodies don't tell the whole story.
"We don't necessarily rely on the amount of antibodies in our blood at the time we're exposed to protect ourselves," said Dr. Anna Durbin, Infectious Disease Physician and Professor of Global Disease Epidemiology and Control at Johns Hopkins. "We have a memory immune response so that when we see this pathogen again, our bodies make more antibodies in response than T cells do. It is really prepared to control this infection."
PHOTO: People get a COVID-19 vaccination on the Broadway Junction subway station in Brooklyn on May 12, 2021 in New York. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)
Even when fewer antibodies are produced, other parts of the immune system are ready to recognize and fight the infection, she added. And even if a vaccinated person becomes infected again, the severity of the disease is likely to be weakened.
"The J&J vaccine induces really good killer T-cell responses, and even if they can get infected, those killer T-cell responses can help get rid of that infection very, very quickly," Goepfert said.
Real world data cited by Durbin shows that the vaccination “... really provides excellent protection against severe hospital COVID caused by the variants, and I think that's probably because of the memory immune response we have and the T. Cell reaction we have. that is able to get rid of this virus when we are infected. "
Onyema Okolo, M.D., an oncologist and hematologist with the University of Arizona Cancer Center at Tucson, is an employee of the ABC News Medical Unit.
We know that vaccines are effective against new variants of COVID. Now scientists are beginning to understand why. originally appeared on abcnews.go.com
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