A look at concerns for vaccine ability to provide immunity to COVID-19 long-term

Published: April 1, 2021 6:54 PM EDT
Updated: April 1, 2021 7:29 PM EDT

As millions still wait for their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, there are concerns those who are fully vaccinated won’t have immunity for long.

An ongoing trial shows Pfizer’s vaccine is highly effective for at least six months. That’s concerning for those on the fast-track to get back to normal.

We learned Thursday it’s entirely possible shots for COVID-19 could become something administered annually, similar to the flu vaccine.

“We can never be safe if everybody’s not safe,” said Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, an epidemiologist as well as founder and director of ICAP.

Despite being on track to reach national vaccination goals ahead of time, El-Sadr says the United States can’t escape the pandemic just yet. That’s because, without strong vaccination programs, the virus has time to mutate worldwide.

“There’s several countries around the world where there’s a very rapid transmission that’s going on, which means that this is just the right environment for new mutations to arise,” El-Sadr said.

In fact, an Oxfam International survey finds, out of nearly 80 epidemiologists surveyed, a majority believes our current vaccines could be ineffective in a year or less. And 88% of them say it’s because of low vaccination rates globally.

“I think we’re going to wait and see whether SARS-COV-2 is limited in its range, so it can’t escape that much more or whether it will continue to evolve away from vaccine and natural-infection-conferred protection,” said Dr. Yonatan Grad, with the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at Harvard.

Grad says there’s a chance new mutations will make the virus less effective, but it could also become more transmissible or more deadly. Which way it goes? Only time will tell.

“The more conservative approach is to start to develop vaccines just in case,” Grad said.

“There’s also work, scientific work, being done as well to try to identify a more universal vaccine, a vaccine that is very broad, and can actually protect against a variety of different types and variants of this virus,” El-Sadr said. “And that will be ideal if we have such a universal vaccine because that would mean that essentially you don’t need any more to have boosters.”

Some good news is Pfizer says the virus hasn’t mutated away from its vaccine yet.

Newly released study results find Pfizer’s vaccine is between 95% and 100% effective in preventing severe disease six months after the second dose.