What Happened in the Past
The 1918 influenza pandemic was far the deadliest respiratory virus pandemic recorded in recent human history with over 50 million deaths (maybe even 100 million deaths, or 3% of the world’s population) worldwide. Although they used some of the same measures we are using now (masks, distancing, event closures, as neither testing nor a vaccine existed back then), the deaths slowed only after enough of the population had either acquired immunity through natural infection or died. Indeed, the first influenza vaccine was not developed until 1942, more than 20 years later. As judged by the amount of suffering and death from 1918 influenza (and the deadly Delta surge in India in spring 2021), natural immunity is obviously a terrible way to get through a pandemic.
Similarly, measles was a highly transmissible respiratory virus that led to high levels of immunity among adults who were invariably exposed as children. However, measles led to deaths each year among the nonimmune until a vaccine was developed in 1963, largely restricting current measles outbreaks in the U.S. now to populations who decline to vaccinate. Smallpox also led to high levels of immunity through natural infection, which was often fatal. That’s why unleashing smallpox on a largely nonimmune population in the New World was so deadly. Only an effective vaccine – and its administration worldwide, including among populations who declined smallpox vaccine at first via mandates – could control and then eventually eradicate smallpox from Earth.
The Delta variant is extremely transmissible, making it unlikely we will ever eliminate or eradicate SARS-CoV-2. Even Australia, which had tried to maintain a COVID-zero nation with masks, distancing, lockdowns, testing and contact tracing before and during the vaccines, ended a strategy aimed at eliminating COVID-19 this week. But, luckily, since highly effective and safe vaccines were developed for COVID-19 less than a year after its advent on a nonimmune population and since vaccines are retaining their effectiveness against severe disease, we have a safe way out of the misery of this pandemic: more and more immunity. “Defanging” SARS-CoV-2 and stripping it of its ability to cause severe disease through immunity will relegate it to the fate of the other four circulating cold-causing coronaviruses, an inconvenience but not a world-stopper.
Immunity Is More Than Antibodies
When we say immunity, we have to be clear that we are talking about cellular immunity and immune memory, not only antibodies. This is a key point. Neutralizing antibodies, which prevent the virus from entering our cells, are generated by the vaccines. But those antibodies will necessarily wane over time since we cannot keep antibodies from every infection and vaccine we have ever seen in the bloodstream (or our blood would be thick as paste!). Vaccines with shorter intervals between doses (like Pfizer vaccines given 3 weeks apart) are likely to have their antibodies wane sooner than vaccines with longer intervals between doses (like Moderna), making mild symptomatic breakthroughs less likely with the Moderna vaccine than the Pfizer during our Delta surge, as a recent Mayo Clinic study showed.
Luckily, the vaccines generate B cells that get relegated to our memory banks and these memory B cells are able to produce high levels of antibodies to fight the virus if they see it again. Amazingly, these memory B cells will actually produce antibodies adapted against the COVID variants if they see a variant in the future, rather than the original antibodies directed against the ancestral strain. This is because memory B cells serve as a blueprint to make antibodies, like the blueprint of a house. If a house needs an extra column (or antibodies need to evolve to work against variants), the blueprint will oblige just as memory B cells will!
One problem with giving a 3rd dose of our current vaccines is that those antibodies won’t be adapted towards the variants. Fully vaccinated people are already now able to generate some antibodies against all the variants we know of to date, thanks to their bank of memory B cells. In other words, no variant has evolved to date that completely evades our vaccines. Memory B cells, once generated by either natural infection or vaccination, should be long-lasting.
If memory B cells are formed by a vaccine, they should be as long-lasting as those from natural infection per various human studies. A 2008 Nature study found that survivors of the 1918 influenza pandemic were able to produce antibodies from memory B cells when exposed to the same influenza strain nine decades later. Of note, mild infections (such as the common cold from the cold-causing coronaviruses called 229E, NL63, OC43, and HKU1) may not reliably produce memory B cell immunity like more severe infections caused by SARS-CoV-2.
Right about now, you may be worrying about a super-variant that might yet emerge to evade all our hard-won immune responses. But most immunologists do not think this is very realistic because of T cells. How are T cells different from B Cells? While B cells are like the memory banks to produce antibodies when needed (helped by T cells), T cells will specifically amplify in response to a piece of the virus and help recruit cells to attack the pathogen directly. We likely have T cells to thank for the vaccine’s incredible durability in protecting us against severe disease. Data from La Jolla Immunology Institute and UCSF show that the T cell response from the Pfizer vaccine is strong across all the variants.
Think of your spike protein as being comprised of 100 houses with a T cell there to cover each house (to protect you against severe disease). The variants have around 13 mutations along the spike protein so 13 of those T cells won’t work, but there are over 80 T cells remaining to protect your “houses” or your body against severe disease.
Although these are theoretical numbers and we don’t know exactly the number of T cell antigens (or “epitopes”) across the spike protein, one review showed 1400 across the whole virus, with many of those in the spike protein. Another study showed that there were 87 epitopes across the spike protein to which T cells respond, and mutations in one of the variants (beta) took those down to 75. The virus cannot mutate indefinitely in its spike protein and still retain function. This is why it is unlikely we will get a variant that will evade the in-breadth, robust response of our T cells.
Where We Go From Here
So, what does this mean for getting through this pandemic? Immunity and more immunity. For those of us who are vaccinated, if we get exposed to the Delta variant, it will boost our immune response although the memory B cells might take 3-5 days to make new antibodies, which can leave us susceptible to a mild breakthrough infection. That’s part of the reason the CDC put back masks for the vaccinated in late July. For those who are unvaccinated, immunity will be gained from Delta but often through terrible ways like severe disease.
The way for the U.S. to determine the need for 3rd shots among those who are not obviously immunocompromised, given the amazing immune memory generated by the vaccines among immunocompetent individuals, is to analyze the cases of the ~6000 individuals who have had severe breakthrough infections among the 171 million Americans fully vaccinated. Define their co-morbidities and age ranges, and boost those susceptible to severe infections (examples could include older people, those with co-morbidities, health care workers, and residents of long-term care facilities). This is an approach likely to be taken by the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.
If immunity is the only way to get through the pandemic and if variants are caused mostly by large populations being unvaccinated, there is not only a moral and ethical imperative but a practical imperative to vaccinate the world in order to keep us all safe. Immunocompetent Americans can boost their antibodies, which may enhance their ability to avoid mild breakthrough infections, but the initial shots still work well against the most important outcomes: hospitalizations and deaths.
There has been no randomized, controlled trial to assess whether three shots vs. two shots meaningfully improve those outcomes. While we ought to trust immune memory to get the immunocompetent in the United States through, we can hasten the end of this pandemic by providing surplus vaccines to poor countries to combat severe disease. Doing so would not only revitalize the role of the U.S. as a global health leader – it would save countless lives.