By Michael V. Callahan and Mark C. Poznansky
Dr. Callahan and Dr. Poznansky are infectious disease experts at Massachusetts General Hospital. They previously worked on a Darpa program designed to predict and protect against pandemics.
Soon after the novel coronavirus emerged, its genome was sequenced and vaccines were developed at, yes, warp speed. These are all herculean tasks that deserve praise. But America’s achievement stops there. The initial vaccine strategy was reactive and tactical, not decisive and strategic. While it prioritized getting safe, effective vaccines into bodies as quickly as possible, it did not consider how to prevent variants or subsequent waves of the virus.
All coronaviruses produce variants, and as with prior coronavirus outbreaks, variants of SARS-CoV-2 emerged as the virus spread from Wuhan, China, across the planet. The next danger is the further evolution of variants that can overcome the immunity provided by existing Covid-19 vaccines and prior infections.
The second generation of Covid-19 vaccines, which are now in development as booster shots, is aimed at known variants, but they are not designed with future variants in mind. This is “whack-a-mole” vaccine development, an inefficient and costly approach that chases yesterday’s virus. What we need is “kill shot” immunity, which would protect people against all current and future variants and bring an end to the pandemic.
It is possible to make a vaccine like this — if scientists closely study the patterns of how viruses mutate, and design vaccines for the viruses that we’re about to face, not just the ones we have now. This approach is especially important considering the number of ways viruses can emerge in humans, including from natural spillover (when a virus spreads from one species to another) or an accident in a virus research laboratory (“lab leak”) — both scenarios that are, appropriately, the subject of serious investigation.
Whatever the results of those inquiries, the United States must use this pandemic to ensure that emergency vaccine development can address all possibilities.
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