“Do we need the Covid vaccine every year?”
With a workable Covid-19 vaccine approved and already being rolled out in the UK, people are looking to the future.
One question on a lot of people’s minds is whether we’ll have to have the vaccine more than once or whether a one-off will be enough to keep us immune for years to come. The short answer is: we don’t really know at this stage.
The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which is the first but probably won’t be the last to be approved for use in the UK, was developed and trialled within a rapid timeframe.
As part of this process, tens of thousands of people were vaccinated in trials – however because the trials have only been happening this year, we’re still waiting to find out how long the trial participants’ immunity lasts.
The matter of how often we’ll need the vaccine is a “really important question,” says Professor Daniel Altmann, from the department of immunology and inflammation at Imperial College London.
“If we can come through the huge challenge of efficient, mass distribution and vaccination with a high level of uptake – and none of these is a sure thing – the next question will be some large scale monitoring to understand stability of immunity,” he explains.
“This won’t be a simple one-size-fits-all answer. Durability may be different with: age, obesity, prior infection, genetics. So we need to keep checking. We’ll then know if we need to re-immunise at one year, two years, etc.”
The answers won’t be the same for the different vaccines, says Professor Altmann. But one positive is that there’s no reason to assume we’ll have to keep dealing with mutations, like we do with the flu jab.
We’re told to have a new flu vaccine each year because there are differing variants of the virus circulating annually – so a vaccine that might work one year won’t necessarily work the next.
But Prof Altmann says right now, there’s no reason to assume this is a problem for Covid-19. “Though of course,” he adds, “as we start to impose immune selection pressure on the virus, escape mutants may indeed emerge.”
This means that as we put pressure on the virus through having the vaccine, it may try to find new ways to survive. It could mutate to find ways to infect us again.
“This won’t be a simple one-size-fits-all answer.”
A spokesperson for Pfizer told HuffPost UK that the question of how often people will need to be vaccinated is one the company continues to explore.
“Study participants will continue to be monitored for long-term protection and safety for an additional two years after their second dose,” they said.
“Pfizer and BioNTech plan to submit the full efficacy and safety data from our Phase 3 trial for peer-review in a scientific journal once the data is complete and analysed.”
It’s important to have a vaccine technology that allows us to both provide boosting doses if needed and to address potential changes in the virus (for example, if it mutates), they added. “The good news is that mRNA technology provides the greatest opportunity to do both,” said Pfizer’s spokesperson.
Experts are still learning about Covid-19. The information in this story is what was known or available at the time of publication, but guidance could change as scientists discover more about the virus.