I was a young vaccine researcher when SARS-CoV-1 appeared in China and spread around the world in 2003, killing 811 people. Our team jumped on the newly available SARS-CoV genomic sequence using the then advanced bioinformatics tools to design a vaccine against the disease. In the end, the project did not move on when the disease eventually disappeared.
Seventeen years later, when SARS-CoV-2 appeared, I had already moved on to a new career. As a retired baseball player watching the World Series, I could not help but call balls and bet on what was going on.
What we have witnessed so far is, of course, quite remarkable. Ingenious scientists, using today’s even more advanced technologies, developed vaccines against COVID-19 at lightning speed. It was truly a miracle that a vaccine could be developed, manufactured and delivered to humans in less than a year after the genome sequence of that virus was published. It’s like hitting grand slams in every inning to win game 1.
The game is over! We won! I remember the excitement when the first vaccines were rolled out in early 2021. Politicians and health experts exclaimed, “Vaccines are our only way out of this pandemic,” and “When enough people are vaccinated, we reach herd immunity. We may need a vaccination rate of 60 percent, 70 percent, even 80 percent to achieve it. . ”
We now have a more complete picture after years of pushing for vaccination. The rapidly evolving vaccines did not provide the expected protection, even in countries with a vaccination rate of more than 90 percent, such as Israel. Now we are being asked to be boosted, to get a third and even a fourth dose. Some say new booster shots should be given every six months, while others say different vaccines are needed for different variants.
It is becoming clear now that the available vaccines are not the way out of the pandemic – as they were originally proclaimed to be – and confidence in public health authorities is eroding.
What went wrong?
Where COVID Vaccine Design falls short
In 2003, our team examined the entire genome of SARS-CoV-1 and modeled the selection of antigens from the virus against different types of expected human immune responses. Our vaccine candidates did not come in for testing, but the designed effect was that once vaccinated, the vaccine would work with the immune system to stimulate the desired responses to generate strong and lasting protection against future SARS-CoV-1 infections.
The human body is truly remarkable, a near perfect creation with an incredibly sophisticated immune system. It not only consists of short-term defense mechanisms (such as antibody-producing B cells) that can be mounted quickly to destroy invaders, but also has long-term memory T cells and memory B cells to provide sometimes lifelong immunity in case the pathogen invades again.
Unlike drugs that are prescribed to treat the sick, vaccines are for healthy people to prevent disease from occurring. Vaccines should be taken properly, with informed consent and without political, social or emotional pressure, unless there is an emergency.
COVID-19 was considered an emergency, so the U.S. Food and Drug Administration skipped the approval process for the use of the newly developed vaccines under the Emergency Use Authorization. It can be said that the design of the peak protein-based vaccines was also hastened. The COVID-19 vaccines are the only vaccines in history that were developed and distributed in the midst of a pandemic. All the other vaccines took years to be designed, tested and approved.
In the past, when developing a vaccine, long-term immune response was always a top priority, although short-term protection was welcome. The most important immune response that a vaccine should elicit is the memory T cell response.
Today, the most common SARS-CoV-2 vaccines are Pfizer-BioNTechs BNT162b2, Modernas mRNA-1273 and Johnson & Johnsons Janssen JNJ-78436735 vaccines. Without exception, they are all based solely on the spike protein or S-protein of SARS-CoV-2.
The nail protein is an obvious choice as it is the most exposed viral protein, ideally as a vaccine candidate. It is completely understandable that these companies, when pressured by the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed, designed their vaccines using the nail protein without testing the specific immune response, especially memory T cell responses that the S protein stimulates. Necessary steps to ensure the safety and efficacy of the vaccines were significantly shortened using trained guesses – instead of real test data – to get the vaccines on the market in months instead of years.
However, assumptions, even well-educated assumptions, simply cannot replace testing.
It should therefore come as no surprise that these hasty vaccines did not behave as they should. When reports emerged that showed diminishing protection after six months of vaccination, it became clear that the design of the vaccines was not ideal.
The assumption that the S protein induces memory T cell response is incorrect.
On January 10 this year, Nature Communications published the peer-reviewed article, “Cross-Reactive Memory T Cells Associate with Protection Against SARS-CoV-2 Infection in COVID-19 Contacts.” The authors presented data showing a very “limited protective function of spike-cross-reactive T cells.” This explains why today’s three most popular vaccines all provide good protection in the short term, and only in the short term.
The S-protein vaccine strategy, albeit an obvious choice, has now been shown to be lacking. “S” stands for short-term, short-term and unfortunately short-term. The spike protein-only vaccines were rushed.
This is not to diminish the incredible work the vaccines did in the short term to protect lives when no other effective protection was available. However, it would have been so much better if the vaccine manufacturers had included the N-protein (nucleocapsid) of SARS-CoV-2, for example, as well as the S-protein in their vaccine design.
It is now time for vaccine developers and public health authorities to take a deep breath, calmly assess the well-researched data currently available, and strive to provide the public with answers to the following questions:
- Given the immunity already established by the widespread natural infections of all varieties, and the major vaccinations, should the authorities continue to push vaccine mandates with the existing, less perfect, emergency vaccines?
- Like the seasonal flu, if a new generation of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines is needed to reduce severe cases in a future endemic situation, what mechanisms are then in place to ensure that the hasty vaccine approach is not repeated?
- Each vaccine has side effects. What are the side effects of the existing vaccines and what precautions will be in place to minimize such side effects in the next generation of vaccines?
It takes a team and different skills to win a game. Beating grand slams in the first game is a good thing, but it would not necessarily win you the World Series. The first generation of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines has fulfilled its mission. Now, the approach to vaccination only should give way to a holistic approach to managing the upcoming endemic phase of SARS-CoV-2. When we say goodbye to the pandemic, we should also say goodbye to vaccine mandates and lockdowns.
More importantly, when the next destructive infectious agent (not necessarily a coronavirus) arrives, our political and medical leaders need to be more balanced and forthright in their approach and enable the population to navigate the storm without a major loss of life. from the disease or from missteps in crisis management policies.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Epoch Times.
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