'Let's knock on wood' the vaccine will protect against new COVID-19 variants, says expert

BA.2 is still surging across the world, leading to new spikes in cases.

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The prevalence of the new variant is likely due to a variety of factors, including increased transmissibility and the loosening of pandemic guidelines, like masking.

Those infected with omicron after the last surge are at least better protected against the new variant, said Dr. Warner Greene, Senior investigator at Gladstone Institutes and Professor of Medicine, Microbiology and Immunology at UCSF on KCBS Radio's "Ask an Expert" with Holly Quan and Eric Thomas on Monday.

While it's not critical yet for the majority of the population to get a second booster dose, except for those more vulnerable, it is essential they have their first booster shot, said Greene.

And that immunity doesn't last long. "The immunity against these coronaviruses is – elicited by natural infection or by vaccine – appears fairly short-lived in terms of prevention against new rounds of infection," he said.

But that doesn't mean there is no protection at all. "Our T cells are working, our memory B cells are working so there may be a longer standing protection, certainly against severe disease," said Greene.

Right now, the variants are "refining" themselves, he said, "we can anticipate that there will continue to be evolution of this virus going forward."

The hope is that whatever evolution or transformation the virus will take, the vaccines developed so far will still be able to protect from serious illness.

"Let's knock on wood that we will not ever get to a virus the protection awarded by our vaccines," he said.

The subvariants that are emerging now are descendants of omicron, but they’re not anything to be too concerned about.

"This is just a natural progression of the virus," said Greene. "We can expect this, there are going to be additional variants that we just have to keep our eye on."

It is noteworthy that while the virus is evolving at getting better at infecting people, it isn’t getting better at causing serious illnesses, and as long as the vaccines help prevent that, people should be relatively safe.

In the beginning, people had unrealistic expectations that the vaccine would be able to protect from infection overall, which just isn’t the case.

"We can't be in the business of preventing colds, we need to be in the business of keeping people out of the hospitals and keeping people alive," he said.

New vaccines are emerging, but they need to be evaluated more thoroughly and compared to the effectiveness of the current standard mRNA vaccine.

"Time will tell," said Greene. "It would be nice to have a more durable vaccine than offered by the RNA vaccine, in terms of prevention of infection."

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