As Governor Baker allows local school districts to make their own decisions about mask policy, Sharon Wright, MD, MPH (Infection Protection, BIDMC) discussed the importance of flexibility and understanding people’s choices about mask-wearing in this next phase of the pandemic. She specifies how high vaccination rates, daily symptom reporting, and testing protocols help schools in Massachusetts remain safe during the pandemic.
A more contagious subvariant of Omicron, known as BA.2, is rapidly spreading across the globe and is now the top COVID-19 variant in at least 18 countries, representing 35% of all new cases worldwide, according to new data from the World Health Organization. Although BA.2 seems more transmissible, it doesn’t appear to be more severe than BA.1 omicron. Dan Barouch, MD, PhD (Center for Virology and Vaccine Research, BIDMC) suggests that vaccinated individuals who have had BA.1 also developed antibodies that could lead to a substantial degree of immunity to BA.2.
Even as COVID-19 cases have been dropping around the world, the relative proportion of cases caused by BA.2, an Omicron variant, has been increasing. It is outcompeting the original Omicron strain in at least 43 countries, prompting fears of another devastating pandemic wave. Dan Barouch, MD, PhD (Center for Virology and Vaccine Research, BIDMC) states that as of now, there is no need to sound a global alarm – but more attention needs to be paid to BA.2 due to its growth advantage.
New studies suggest that several parts of the immune system can mount a sustained, potent response to any coronavirus variant. Dan Barouch, MD, PhD (Center for Virology and Vaccine Research, BIDMC) discusses how compared with antibodies, T cells are often an afterthought and largely ignored. Barouch states how important T cells are for protection against new variants that might emerge.
When it comes to post-infection immunity, the relevant scientific question isn’t whether natural immunity exists but whether it’s as protective and lasts as long as vaccine-induced immunity. Studies have given conflicting answers. In a recent study published in Science led by Dan Barouch, MD, PhD (Center for Virology and Vaccine Research, BIDMC), scientists confirmed that an infection with SARS-CoV-2 creates some degree of immunity. Barouch said the study was not so much to test natural immunity but as part of the vaccine program led by his team.
Due to the tens of thousands of cases reported in the recent surge, concerns over an ensuing potential increase of long COVID are starting to crop up among experts who study and treat the condition. Jason Maley, MD (Pulmonary Disease, BIDMC) stated that Omicron infections were so common that doctors are certainly seeing it result in long COVID, and expect that it will result in continued high demand for care for people with long COVID.
Dan Barouch, MD, PhD (Center for Virology and Vaccine Research, BIDMC) discussed how BA.2, an Omicron variant, might prolong the Omicron surge, but emphasizes how his data suggests that it would not lead to a brand-new additional surge. Barouch and other researchers believe that BA.2 is unlikely to spark a second major wave of infections, hospitalizations and deaths after Omicron’s initial onslaught.
New studies suggest that vaccinated individuals have strong T cell immunity against the Omicron variant, even when antibodies wane. Dan Barouch, MD, PhD (Center for Virology and Vaccine Research, BIDMC) discussed how compared with antibodies, T cells are often an afterthought and largely ignored. Barouch emphasizes how important T cells are for protection against new variants that might emerge.
Physicians who treat long COVID are worried about the potential for a new wave of cases. Jason Maley, MD (Pulmonary Disease, BIDMC), who is the head of BIDMC’s COVID-19 Survivorship Program for patients experiencing long-haul COVID-19 symptoms, states that he is starting to see Omicron-related cases, adding that he has little reason to think the variant will differ from earlier versions of the virus in its ability to generate long COVID.
It is still not clear just how much acquired immune protection from breakthrough COVID-19 infections is enough to ward off future infection, or whether the virus might mutate in ways that evade even bolstered immunity. T cells and B cells that have encountered viruses are said to have “immune memory” because the cells offer more durable protection. Dan Barouch, MD, PhD (Center for Virology and Vaccine Research, BIDMC), shared that while there has not been a lot of focus on immune memory, it critically important for any vaccine, and knowing how the vaccine protects six to 12 months after administration may be the most important thing to know. Barouch added that people who have been vaccinated and had a breakthrough infection still need to be cautious by adhering to public health guidelines.
New data on the risks of hospitalization and death from COVID-19 confirms that booster doses are most beneficial to older adults, as opposed to younger Americans, the CDC reports. Dan Barouch, MD, PhD (Center for Virology and Vaccine Research, BIDMC) shares his opinion, stating that he is in favor of boosters, yet he doesn’t want to overstate their importance as it relates to younger Americans. He reiterates that the benefit of a booster dose is greater in the elderly, and that it is progressively less in the lower risk groups.
Jason Maley, MD (Pulmonary Disease, BIDMC) discussed BIDMC’s COVID-19 Survivorship Program for patients experiencing long-haul COVID-19 symptoms.
A January study led by BIDMC researchers found that N95s could be used as many as 25 times before they were no longer functional. However, this number likely skews high for the average consumer. Researchers were able to decontaminate the masks with vaporized hydrogen peroxide between uses—something people can’t do at home.
As other countries have started to offer second booster vaccines, health experts say it’s premature for the US to take similar steps, at least for the foreseeable future. Dan Barouch MD, PhD (Center for Virology and Vaccine Research, BIDMC) shares his opinion in regards to a second COVID-19 booster, stating that boosting every three to six months is not a feasible strategy in the developing world. Although he acknowledges that boosters have their place, he emphasizes vaccinating the unvaccinated is crucial to warding off severe illness and preventing other variants from emerging.
According to a study led by BIDMC researchers, published in Nature, current COVID-19 vaccines provide robust protection against severe infection caused by the Delta and Omicron variants. The study shows that existing COVID-19 vaccines induce cellular immunity, or the production of protective immune cells, even against Omicron. Dan Barouch, MD, PhD (Center for Virology and Vaccine Research, BIDMC) states that the data provides immunological context— current vaccines still provide robust protection against severe disease and hospitalization due to the Omicron variant despite substantially reduced neutralizing antibody responses and increased breakthrough infection.
Richard Schwartzstein, MD (Critical Care Medicine, Pulmonary Disease, BIDMC) discussed the strain on the hospital system’s impact on the spread of Omicron infections noting how with positive cases and quarantines thinning already overstretched staff, health care systems are bearing the brunt of the crisis.
A new study led by Julia Haas, PhD and Ted Kaptchuk (Program in Placebo Studies, BIDMC) and published in JAMA Network Open shows more than two-thirds of the common side-effects people experience after a COVID-19 vaccine can be attributed to a negative version of the placebo effect rather than the vaccine itself. In view of their results, the researchers argue that better public information about nocebo responses may improve COVID-19 vaccine uptake by reducing the concerns that make some people hesitant.
In this first person piece, Leonor Fernandez, MD (Medicine, BIDMC) shares that by informing and protecting ourselves, we can help protect our loved ones, and also support our health care workers who are working hard to give the best care possible during the COVID-19 pandemic.
With COVID-19 mutating rapidly, vaccine makers have tested a number of variant-specific vaccines, yet none of these have come close to authorization. Dan Barouch, MD, PhD (Center for Virology and Vaccine Research, BIDMC), spoke to why we haven’t seen variant specific vaccines authorized, noting it takes four to six months to generate new batches of variant-specific vaccine for distribution and that new variants can emerge and flame out in that timeline.
A study published last week in the American Journal of Infection Control found that some N95 masks can be safely cleaned and recycled several times without losing their effectiveness. The study was conducted by researchers from BIDMC and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.