"The groundwork of all happiness is health." - Leigh Hunt

How will we be prepared if the COVID threat increases again?

January 18, 2024 – We’ve seen this before. Somewhere on the planet, a brand new COVID-19 variant is emerging, gaining strength and taking hold, bringing with it a surge in hospitalizations and deaths.

It's happening now. However, to this point the JN.1 variant, despite causing a surge in cases and worse outcomes, will not be expected to be the variant that many have been anxious about.

But what if the following one comes? Will we be prepared?

What keeps experts up at night is the opportunity of something we haven't seen yet.

A variant that appears abruptly and bypasses all of our immune defenses could take us back to day one. That means facing a virus again without an efficient vaccine or tailored antiviral treatment. It is difficult to predict how likely this threat is, but the chance will not be zero.

The positive thing is that the virus cannot “learn”, but we humans can. We now have vaccine technology that is crucial for a faster response to latest COVID variants. In the past, it could take six months or longer to develop a vaccine, ramp up production and distribute it – because it still does today with the flu vaccine annually. However, mRNA vaccine technology might be updated at a lower cost and deployed way more quickly, which is why experts call it such “Plug and play” vaccines.

“We have great confidence that mRNA technology and the way these vaccines are made will continue to advance. “That makes it really easy to adapt to new variants fairly quickly,” said Dr. Kawsar Rasmy Talaat, an infectious disease and international health specialist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

“These are great things,” Talaat said. “We have the tools to mitigate the health impacts and save lives.”

JN.1 is within the lead

At the moment we're in an upswing. The JN.1 variant now accounts for greater than 60% of viruses circulating within the United States. On January 6, hospitalizations rose 3% and deaths rose greater than 14% in comparison with previous weeks CDC data.

Although JN.1 has caused a rise in some COVID data to this point, the CDC stays confident that it doesn't pose a greater risk to public health. Yes, it has been shown to have the option to evade immunity, but it surely doesn't appear to make us sicker than other variants.

When it involves COVID variantswe've already passed through several variations – from small ones that hardly change to variants that turn into household names – like Delta and Omicron.

Millions to advance next-generation vaccines

Ideally, COVID vaccines could do more, Talaat said. Current vaccines are good at reducing the chance of severe disease, hospitalization and death. However, they usually are not as effective at stopping transmission and latest infections. “And the immunity from the vaccine doesn’t last nearly as long as we thought.” So a longer-lasting vaccine that forestalls the spread of COVID from individual to individual could be optimal. Through emergency use authorizations and other regulatory flexibility, the FDA has “shown greater flexibility” in responding to previous changes to COVID variants, Talaat said.

Speaking of federal agencies, the Department of Health and Human Services is spending $500 million on 11 promising next-generation COVID vaccines. This is a component of an overall $1.4 billion commitment to clinical trials and other initiatives to raised prepare us for the long run.

Developing technologies might be excellent news for individuals who avoid needles and syringes as much as possible. Strategies in development include a nasal spray, a microarray skin patch, and self-amplifying mRNA (mainly a approach to increase mRNA instructions to the immune system without having to penetrate cell nuclei) to deliver COVID vaccines in entirely latest ways administer.

These latest formulations are still in early stages, so it might be several years before they receive FDA approval for widespread use.

Accelerating this research is a public-private task for the federal government Project NextGenwhich is devoted to “improving our preparedness for COVID-19 strains and variants.” In October 2023, HHS, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) announced most promising new vaccine technologies to receive start-up funding as a part of this project.

Other project goals include ensuring that future vaccines are developed quickly and more cost-effectively, that they work higher, and that they're accessible to all Americans.

It might take a village

As promising as these latest technologies could also be in staying no less than one step ahead of a threatening future COVID variant, there remains to be one other hurdle to beat: public acceptance.

Unlike the unique vaccine series, which about 80% of U.S. adults received, the newest updated vaccine series has stalled. As far because the uptake of the brand new boosters is anxious, it's lower than 10% in children. In adults it's barely higher, and even in older people it's only a couple of third,” said Daniel Salmon, PhD, MPH, a vaccinologist on the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

As of December 30, 2023, 19.4% of American adults, 8% of kids, and 38% of adults age 75 or older received it an updated COVID booster for 2023-24 Immunization.

“It's a problem because the vaccine has benefits. I find it is complacency … That’s probably the right word for it,” Salmon said. The advantages of vaccination outweigh the risks, “so people would do well to get vaccinated.”

Asked whether we may need higher herd immunity at this point, Salmon said: “Herd immunity doesn't work that well with COVID.” In contrast, it really works well with measles, where about 97% of persons are vaccinated and protection is long stops. “But in the case of COVID, immunity from both the disease and the vaccine decreases over time.”

“While the acute crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be behind us, SARS-CoV-2 continues to evolve,” Robert Johnson, PhD, director of the NextGen project, said in a press release Video statement. The vaccines remain effective in stopping serious illness and death, and effective antiviral treatments remain available.

However, “the American people need vaccines that protect not only against current strains, but also against any new variant that comes our way.”