As the delta variant of COVID-19 spreads among us, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) once again cautions Americans, asking them to mask up when they enter a building, even if they are vaccinated. The Biden administration unveiled plans on Wednesday to roll out COVID-19 booster shots as soon as Sept. 20. The administration is making the right call.
Viruses survive by mutating quickly and adapting to their environments. If we’re going to prevent COVID-19 from causing illness and death, we’re going to have to adapt just as quickly and fight COVID-19 with everything we have. That not only includes masks and vaccinations, but it also means booster shots.
Despite recent debate, science is showing us that boosters will be needed. My organization’s biosimulation modeling research indicates that as those who are inoculated reach the one-year mark, vaccinations become less effective. This is echoed in recently released data from Pfizer’s own clinical trials, showing up to a 6 percent decrease in vaccine efficacy every two months after inoculation.
This means that it’s no longer a question of “if” or even “when” boosters will be needed. The administration’s expected action follows the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) authorization for boosters for emergency use with the immunocompromised. There’s good reason for this as the number of daily COVID-19 cases spike, and yet, the public health campaign to get people vaccinated in the first place is hitting the wall of ideological rejection, political belief and the misinformation and disinformation that sows personal distrust and fear as the pace of vaccinations slows. That needs to change.
Infectious disease specialists have known for some time that COVID-19 will become a fixture of our lives. It will continue to mutate, much like the flu, resulting in ongoing illnesses, hospitalizations and death. But it can become milder, less widespread and have less impact on our daily life less than it does now if we are able to encourage full vaccination and when it’s time, booster shots.
And just as they do with the flu, vaccine developers need to model, test and produce vaccines and boosters on an ongoing basis that can attack the latest variants to provide the fullest measure of protection to meet the changing nature of the disease and shifting public health landscape.
Make no mistake, current vaccines provide extremely high levels of protection against COVID-19 and excellent defense against serious illness and death. However, with the lessening efficacy over time that science is revealing, the timing is right for authorizing boosters so that they can be produced in the quantities required and modified, when necessary, to meet emerging variants.
The continuing development of vaccines and boosters will be a long-term partnership between public health and scientific researchers, requiring computer modeling and simulation to increase speed, safety and accuracy in development and dosing, as well as decentralized clinical trials to increase the diversity of trial participants. This approach has already resulted in our current vaccines, and it will help developers continue to modify vaccines for maximum effectiveness with the most diverse set of patient populations. In this way, vaccines and boosters will defend as many people as possible against emerging COVID-19 variants.
Since the first inoculations emerged about 1,000 years ago, vaccines have been saving millions of lives. For many years, we haven’t thought twice about them or the benefits they give us. As infants, we receive vaccines against polio; tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis; measles, mumps and rubella; hepatitis A and B; and more diseases that — as a result — don’t trouble us, or cause illness or death. The smallpox vaccine was used so effectively that the disease was eradicated.
And yet, the COVID-19 vaccines that are the culmination of years of research that we were able to apply to rapidly meet this global public health emergency, are greeted with skepticism. It’s become clear that fear of booster side-effects may also be emerging. However, research by Johns Hopkins and vaccine scientists at Moderna is indicating that booster-dose side effects will not be more severe than those caused by the original vaccine
The many 100-year history of positive benefits conferred by vaccines should at last signal to Americans that it is time to not only accept but also to normalize the COVID-19 vaccines. As COVID-19 mutates and new, more contagious variants emerge, the virus itself is showing us that we can’t be complacent, and the administration will be making the right decision when it calls for boosters. We need to do everything we can to fight COVID-19, funding and putting into place programs that develop and make the latest boosters widely available. We will need them.
William F. Feehery, Ph.D., MBA, is CEO of Certara, an industry leader in applying quantitative decision-making frameworks across the drug development life cycle, and was president of DuPont Industrial Biosciences (2013-2019). He was Churchill Scholar at Cambridge University and recipient of a National Science Foundation Fellowship, his doctorate involved developing software and mathematical methods for modeling complex systems.