Durham, N.C. — While the latest COVID-19 subvariant of omicron, BA.2, is not as severe as previous variants, health experts are still concerned the virus could mutate and evade vaccines.
David Montefiori, a viral expert at Duke University, said Thursday that vaccines are holding up well against the latest variants of COVID-19. But that could change as the virus continues to mutate, especially among people who have not received a booster shot.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, half of all eligible Americans have not yet received a booster shot.
Research shows that people who were vaccinated several months ago, or have not yet received a booster shot, could still fall ill with coronavirus.
A third booster shot was approved for older Americans three weeks ago, and Montefiori said it’s likely that a third booster will be recommended for all Americans.
“At some point, I feel like everyone will want to get a second booster,” he said. “But at this point, it’s unclear.”
Health experts concerned over unknowns surrounding waning immunity
Montefiori said herd immunity is having a major impact on the number of people hospitalized and dying from coronavirus, but health experts are unsure how long herd immunity will last.
Over time, immunity built up from both a prior infection and vaccine could fade, and different variants of coronavirus could become more severe.
Montefiori said he hopes the public will build up enough immunity “to where [coronavirus] will become a common cold, no worse than the flu.”
“We are seeing these new forms acquiring increased transmissibility and out-competing the earlier form,” he said. “We will continue to have omicron lineages that will evolve and hopefully not be able to evade the vaccines.”
Montefiori said as immunity wanes and different variants of coronavirus become more dominant, it will be important that vaccines change to keep up with the virus.
The good news? Montefiori says that viruses tend to evolve to become less severe. He also added that coronaviruses aren’t as good as evading vaccines as flu viruses.
“I think this virus is always going to be with us,” Montefiori said. “I think it’s going to be something we have to live with.”
Risks of taking public transportation
Infectious disease expert with Duke University Cameron Wolfe said he was concerned about airlines and public transportation dropping mask mandates after the federal government’s recent decision.
While airlines have done plenty to help mitigate someone’s risk of COVID-19, “it’s a misnomer to assume the risk is zero,” he said.
If someone testing positive for COVID-19 is sitting next to you on an airplane and they aren’t wearing a face mask, there is a good chance you could get sick.
Wolfe said that public health officials are continuing to encourage people to make “individual decisions” about their own health risk, but for some people, that’s not a luxury.
Many people don’t have a choice whether or not to take public transportation and are being put at-risk by the federal government’s latest decision, he said.
Those who tend to rely on public transportation, like buses or trains, are typically economically disadvantaged and at higher risk of contracting and falling sick from COVID-19. They are also less likely to be vaccinated.
Relying on testing numbers
“You have to concede the numbers are a significant underestimate of the actual burden of COVID-19 in the community,” Wolfe said, “but that’s always been the case.”
Wolfe said that the CDC determines one’s risk for COVID-19 by factoring in the number of people hospitalized and the number of deaths in a community.
“We are trying to accommodate this virus, co-exist with COVID,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe said that even though hospitalizations and deaths are still well-below what they were this time last year, people are still dying from the virus.
Some people unfortunately have a severe inflammatory reaction to the virus, he said, especially those who are immunocompromised. He hopes that health officials will continue to learn how to mitigate the effects of the virus on those who are vulnerable.