By Nicholas Pasion
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
“This COVID vaccine is like a life jacket,” said Dr. Dong Heun Lee, a doctor at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Hospital, where the number of hospitalized COVID patients have more than tripled over the past month as the Delta variant infects the unvaccinated.
Lee said unvaccinated individuals face massive risk when they contract COVID-19. And with vaccination rates dropping quickly and another oncoming wave of COVID cases surging, spurred by the highly transmissive Delta variant, hospitals are once again filling up. But doctors, researchers, and medical professors all have the same message: get vaccinated.
“A virus that has undergone mutation that enables it to transmit more efficiently will become the dominant one,” Dr. Deborah Fuller, a professor of microbiology and vaccine researcher at the University of Washington, said.
According to the Washington State Department of Health, in the state of Washington, the Delta variant has become the dominant strain, making up about 85% of new cases in July. As of July 30, one in 172 Washington residents was estimated to have an active COVID-19 infection. Experts expect that number to continue to rise. An Aug. 13 news release stated that “Prevalence is approaching levels last seen in the winter 2020 surge.”
The Center for Disease Control said vaccines are highly effective at preventing serious illness and death, including against the Delta variant. While some fully vaccinated individuals will still be infected in breakthrough infections, the vaccine still provides protection against serious illness and death.
Still, after receiving the vaccine, the immunization’s efficacy wanes over time as our antibody responses begin to decay, Fuller said. The CDC is currently unsure as to how long after being vaccinated an individual’s antibodies will decay to the point of serious illness.
“Because the vaccines are so new, and it’s still so recent, we don’t have enough data yet to know, at what point will the vaccines become less effective at protecting us from disease,” Fuller said.
Researchers will be able to tell if vaccinated individuals’ antibody response is decreasing if there starts to be an increase in breakthrough infections and an increase in vaccinated individuals contracting the disease.
Fuller added that a second approach to testing vaccine longevity is to test the vaccine response empirically on animals. By vaccinating the animal, researchers are able to test the immune response at different levels and against mutated versions of the virus. She said the research her lab has done has shown that even low immune levels “are providing a significant amount of protection against disease.”
“That’s actually a promising sign, that potentially these vaccines, at least in terms of the threshold of antibody that you need to be protected, could provide durable immunity,” she said. “But then the variants come in because then they can change that equation a little bit.”
In response to the variants, researchers are designing and editing vaccines to address the mutations shown in newer variants. Fuller said by editing vaccines to match the dominant variants, researchers will be able to ensure better protection against newer and more deadly variants.
Among eligible residents, 75.7% of individuals in King County are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and 81.5% have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Still, as the Delta variant infects more people, it is vital for individuals to get vaccinated against the virus.
Lee said the number of COVID-19 infected patients at UCSF Hospital is on the rise, and among the hospitalized, a majority are unvaccinated. He said without the vaccine, people will be stuck in the water.
“This COVID vaccine is like a life jacket when you’re swimming,” Lee said. “If you’re vaccinated, you’re safe in the water. If you’re not, I mean, you can swim, but there is a chance that you might drown. It’s really important to get everyone vaccinated.” ν
This health series is made possible by funding from the Washington Department of Health, which has no editorial input or oversight of this content.