Written by Dr. Andrew D. Yurochko, Ph.D., Professor and Carroll Feist Endowed Chair in Viral Oncology
Vice Chairman, Dept of Microbiology and Immunology
Executive Director of the Center of Excellence in Emerging Viral Threats
Director, CoBRE Center of Applied Immunology and Pathological Processes
LSU Health Shreveport
The Coronavirus pandemic has raged for more than 18 months, and we are now in our 4th viral surge in Louisiana (caused largely by the new Delta variant). The Delta variant is the most infectious and possibly most fit and dangerous of the existing variants. This variant has completely taken over the great State of Louisiana and the country in less than three months. There is no doubt that the coronavirus’ impact on all of our lives has been staggering. In the past two weeks we have seen numbers of infections and hospitalizations that are among the highest since the pandemic began in 2019. Now, the new school year is starting, and our precious children are all headed back to school.
The answers lies in the use of the developed coronavirus vaccines (for example those made by Pfizer and Moderna, which have been the largest contributors to the current vaccine numbers). These vaccines are among the safest vaccines ever manufactured and have together already been used in more than 160 million Americans to date. They have been shown to have high efficacy and to prevent severe disease and hospitalizations in those vaccinated, even against the new Delta variant. They also help reduce virus spread. Both vaccines are approved for use by adults aged 18 and older. The Pfizer vaccine is also now approved for use by those 12 and older and is currently undergoing trials to test its safety and efficacy in those 5 to 11 years old and in a second study in those 6 months to 4 years old. A third vaccine made by Johnson & Johnson is also in use in the U.S. and is approved for those older than 18.
These vaccines will allow us to return to a normal life, but only if taken by a large proportion of the population. The author felt so strongly about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines that both of his minor children were vaccinated. In fact, the oldest child, the author and his wife participated in the first Pfizer clinical trial offered by LSU Health Shreveport (with Dr. John Vanchiere as the lead investigator) in support of the testing of this vaccine candidate. The youngest will also be vaccinated as soon as the vaccine is approved is approved for ages 5 to 12.
At present, these vaccines are approved for the ages noted above under an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) by the FDA. What does this EUA approval mean? An EUA approval means the vaccines have undergone thorough safety testing with safety being the primary consideration. That is, these vaccines have undergone an extremely rigorous and thorough safety testing program and would not have been approved if all safety standards were not met. Safety is also always monitored and if issues arise, as was noted with the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, the FDA can suspend the use of the vaccine. Pfizer and Moderna have now submitted their respective vaccines for full approval. The requirements for full approval include long term efficacy of the vaccines, as well as ongoing evaluation of safety.
We know from data collected around the country and the world that these vaccines are safe and effective against currently circulating variants. They are the best “Magic Wand” that we can wave to help us stay safe, protect our loved ones, allow schools to open normally, allow us to safely return to church, return to sports and all the things we love. It is important to point out that only with high levels of vaccination can we reach the herd immunity needed to effectively end the threat of COVID-19. No dangerous virus has ever resulted in herd immunity via natural infection. As an example, the eradication in 1979 of Smallpox (which had a 20-30% case fatality rate) was only possible because of a concerted worldwide vaccination effort. This same point holds true for Polio (which can cause life-long paralysis in children) eradication efforts that are currently being undertaken. Through using an effective vaccine, the world health organization has limited wild type polio to only two countries as of July of 2021.
Modern scientific techniques have created several safe and effective SARS-CoV-2 vaccines. It has been argued that this is the fastest vaccine to reach human use. Although that statement is absolutely true, it is forgotten that the first SARS outbreak in 2002-2003 and then the MERS outbreak that began in 2012 stimulated research into effective coronavirus vaccines and a focus on the coronavirus spike protein as the key vaccine target. Thus, in reality a background knowledge about coronavirus vaccines has been in the works for close to 20 years. Likewise, the use of the mRNA vaccine strategy that has been deployed to allow this rapid manufacturing of hundreds of millions of doses of a vaccine by Pfizer and Moderna can be traced back to the 1980’s.
The current coronavirus has seen more than double the number of fatalities among children when compared to the seasonal flu, and current hospital numbers unfortunately show that the Delta variant can also infect and seriously affect our children. Because we have a strong, safe, and effective vaccine against this coronavirus (including the Delta variant), we can vaccinate ourselves and our children to prevent its spread in schools and beyond during this dangerous 4th surge of SARS-CoV-2.
The author is a professor and viral immunologist with more than 30 years of experience working with the immune system and viral disease. He is currently the Executive Director of the Center of Excellence in Emerging Viral Threats and Heads the National Institutes of Health Funded Immunology Center of Excellence at LSU Health Shreveport.