By Benjamin Neufeld
Despite increasingly lax attitudes around the COVID-19 pandemic among the majority of the population, new vaccine resistant variants continue to form and spread throughout the world. XBB.1.5, a subvariant of Omicron, “now accounts for 40 percent of COVID-19 infections in the U.S.” according to a press briefing from Ethnic Media Services.
On Friday, January 6, Ethnic Media Services hosted a panel of medical experts to speak about the implications of the new variant, vaccine efficacy against XBB.1.5, and the future of the pandemic. The panel included Dr. Ben Neuman, Chief Virologist of the Global Health Research Complex at Texas A&M; Jill Rosenthal the director of Public Health Policy at the Center for American Progress; Sophia Tan a Research Data Scientist at UC San Francisco; and Dr. Oliver Brooks the Chief Medical Officer for Watts Healthcare.
According to Dr. Neuman, COVID-19 has been the third leading cause of death in the U.S. for the last three years. He stressed that the pandemic is ongoing, that it is as much a problem now as it was during the height of COVID protections in 2020. He compared trends in COVID to trends in RSV and influenza, saying that influenza/RSV cases have spiked during their regular seasonal peak and have since gone down. Meanwhile, COVID cases, which many people have hoped would begin to follow a similarly seasonal pattern, have continued to rise.
“We’ve essentially taken our eye off the ball,” said Dr. Neuman. Though all the experts on the panel stressed the importance of individual precautions such as hand washing and masking (which have become less and less popular since the roll-out of the first vaccine), Dr. Neuman was most critical of the lack of vaccine updates since the emergence of new variants. According to Dr. Neuman, neither major mRNA vaccine producers have announced plans for a vaccine update, and the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) has not met to discuss COVID in many months.
Dr. Neuman suspects that the population has achieved herd immunity against (and potentially even driven to extinction) older variants of the virus. However, because of the lengthy wait between vaccine updates, people receiving their first vaccine shot or booster dose are essentially being protected against strains which may not even exist anymore.
Scientists suspect that XBB.1.5 was formed in someone infected with two COVID strains at the same time. The variant contains significant changes to the receptor-binding part of the spike of the virus. The vaccines function by creating antibodies which recognize that spike region of the virus. These changes to that region are why new variants are so vaccine resistant.
Dr. Neuman also pointed out that the reason vaccine-resistant variants continuously become so prevalent is due to the fact that variants which are not vaccine resistant are not able to spread as easily or rapidly through a vaccinated population.
Despite their reduced effectiveness, each of the experts agreed that getting vaccinated is still crucially important. “The number one thing we can do is get vaccinated,” said Dr. Oliver Brooks. According to Dr. Brooks, only 15% of the population has received the updated, bivalent booster. “Vaccinations are safe and effective. Even if you only have a 10 percent response rate, you still should get vaccinated. There is no downside.”
On a systematic scale, Rosenthal stressed the importance of action and increased funding from the U.S. government. “The U.S. Congress’ shortsighted failure to invest in existing and improved COVID-19 countermeasures, disease tracking, and monitoring has left the country unprepared for future stages of the pandemic, including the current surge related to a new variant,” she said.
At the individual level, other than getting vaccinated, Dr. Oliver Brooks recommends that people continue to wear masks, diligently wash their hands, take supplements of Vitamin C, Vitamin D, and Zinc, and continue to test regularly for the virus.
Benjamin Neufeld is an Independent Reporter for The Weekly Issue/El Semanario.
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