MOSCOW (Pakistan Point News / Sputnik - 03rd August, 2021) After reports of breakthrough infections among those who had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 renewed concerns over the efficacy of existing vaccines, public health experts told Sputnik that the vaccines' success in preventing severe illnesses and deaths could help defang the coronavirus and make it as benign as a common cold.
As governments around the world continued to push forward their COVID-19 vaccination campaigns, the latest report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on the COVID-19 Delta variant's capability of causing breakthrough infections has raised new concerns over the efficacy of existing vaccines.
A breakthrough infection happens when a person who has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 has become netherless been infected by the coronavirus.
According to a latest study from the CDC released on Friday, breakthrough infections accounted for about 74% of the 469 new COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts in July. All of the three COVID-19 vaccines being rolled out in the United States, including Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Janssen, have recorded breakthrough infection cases.
Leaked internal documents from CDC described the Delta variant as contagious as chickenpox, US media reported last week. Those who contracted COVID-19 after full vaccination carried almost identical viral loads compared to those who had not been vaccinated and could still infect others, the documents said.
As people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 could still become infected and continue to spread the virus, the effectiveness of existing vaccines in fending off new outbreaks has come under heavy scrutiny.
However, US medical experts argued that existing vaccines' success in preventing severe illnesses and deaths would still make them highly effective in defanging COVID-19 and turn it into a mild disease similar to the common cold.
"This virus is not going to go away, unfortunately; it will become another respiratory virus which the human population lives with, so we need to focus on defanging the virus and preventing severe disease. Vaccines allow this defanging to occur. That is exactly the goal now that we know this is an endemic respiratory virus. It will become a benign infection like those caused by the other circulating coronaviruses that cause the common cold," Dr. Monica Gandhi, Professor of Medicine and Associate Chief of the Division of HIV, Infectious Diseases, and Global Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told Sputnik.
The latest data from the CDC provided evidence in the vaccines' outstanding records in protection against severe cases and deaths despite breakthrough infections.
As of July 26, out of the more than 163 million people in the United States who had been fully vaccinated, 6,587 patients who experienced breakthrough infections had been hospitalized or died, the CDC said. This means full vaccination offers over 99.999% protection against hospitalization and deaths even if breakthrough infections happen.
Other US public health experts stressed that the vaccines' capability in preventing severe diseases proved that getting vaccinated continued to be critical in our ongoing battle against COVID-19.
"The FDA [Federal Drug Administration] approved vaccines are not PERFECT but they are very, very good at reducing new infections, disease and death. Fundamentally, who wants to get sick and die? If that does not sound appealing, get vaccinated," Dr. Sarah Fortune, an immunologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan school of Public Health, told Sputnik.
ADJUSTING COVID-19 CONTAINMENT GOALS
When different governments rolled out their COVID-19 vaccination campaigns, the initial goal was to build up "herd immunity" among the population to stop the coronavirus from spreading and end the global pandemic. But this goal required the existing COVID-19 vaccines to be effective in staving off new infections after full vaccination.
As more and more breakthrough infections emerged driven by the Delta variant, governments around the world may need to adjust their COVID-19 containment goals by moving away from focusing on the number of new infections when the country reaches high vaccination rates, Dr. Gandhi from the University of California, San Francisco, argued.
"We had formerly followed cases closely because hospitalizations and severe disease tracked with them. In areas of high vaccination rates, like the UK and Israel, governments are now tracking hospitalizations as their marker of level of threat to the population. And COVID-19 will not be eliminated or eradicated, unfortunately, so - as it becomes endemic - we need to track its impact by hospitalizations and focus on getting as many people vaccinated as possible to mitigate that impact," she said.
In countries with high vaccination rates, the government should use hospital capacity as the new marker to decide if new lockdowns would be necessary, the expert suggested.
"There is no one number because hospital capacity is different for each nation. But when hospital capacity is nowhere near threatened by severe illness and hospitalizations are kept to low levels, that country has achieved success with their vaccination campaign. We should continue to get people vaccinated but lockdowns are unlikely to come back at that point. Focusing on hospitalizations and preventing severe disease in regions of high vaccination is the direction most governments will go," she said.
"I strongly disagree with the idea that we should adjust our goals and stop trying to contain the spread of COVID. The vaccines (at least the three FDA approved vaccines with which I am most familiar) can't stop new infections completely but they can reduce them very substantially --- by over an order of magnitude," she said.
The expert explained that allowing the new coronavirus to continue to spread among the population, including those who had been fully vaccinated, could enable new dangerous virus variants to emerge.
"However, the virus is under pressure to evolve to be more transmissible. We see that in the delta variant, which emerged in a world without much vaccine coverage. If the virus is spreading unchecked, it will have too many opportunities to evolve to be ever more transmissible in the vaccinated population - which is likely to mean vaccine escape mutants that cause severe symptoms in vaccinated people," she said.
As breakthrough infections may undermine the public's confidence in existing COVID-19 vaccines, both experts reiterated the importance of full vaccination in the ongoing efforts to end the global pandemic.