Corona pandemic: What Omikron does with the antibodies in people who have been vaccinated

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The first news about vaccination protection against Omikron come thick and fast. The laboratories of virologists like Sandra Ciesek, Janine Kimpel from Austria or Alex Sigal’s team in South Africa must have gone through the nights. The first results have been available since Wednesday and they show exactly what science suspected when the new variant appeared: Omikron is only marginally interested in the neutralizing antibodies that are triggered by the existing vaccines.

The laboratories have examined different vaccination schemes and tested how strongly the antibodies formed can neutralize the new virus variant Omikron. In this case, neutralizing means binding to the virus and thus disposing of it through phagocytes of the immune system. In principle, neutralization tests test how many antibodies are swimming in the blood of the vaccinated person that are able to bind to the virus. The results of the research laboratories sound frightening at first: “2x Biontech, 2x Moderna, 1xAZ / 1x Biontech after 6 months 0% neutralization with Omikron, also 3x Biontech 3 months after booster only 25% NT versus 95% with Delta. Up to 37 times the reduction in Delta vs. Omikron, ”writes Sandra Ciesek on Twitter.

But what is important to know: These are laboratory values ​​that confirm exactly what was already suspected when the variant appeared, namely that the mutations in the spike protein – which the vaccinations specifically train the immune system for – are so massive that the Antibodies no longer fit. First of all, this is not a new quality. It is the confirmation of what experienced virologists have accepted and now confirmed. However, this does not allow any direct conclusions to be drawn about the effectiveness of the vaccination. For this, many people – not just their blood – would have to be examined in clinical studies. A “37-fold reduction Delta vs. Omicron” does not mean that the vaccination is 37 times less effective. At the moment no statements can be made about the overall effect of the vaccination against Omikron.

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Above all, the results allow one conclusion: The variant reacts exactly as expected and boosting is important. But boosters are important anyway to ensure rapid protection against viruses during the pandemic. Because that’s what it’s all about when we talk about antibodies: a quick reaction that ideally fends off SARS-CoV-2 so well that COVID-19 does not even break out. And we are still mainly dealing with Delta. Delta is the virus variant that determines what happens in Germany and boosters help against Delta.

Boosters have become so important for two reasons. First, because the vaccine was developed for the early alpha variant of the virus and does not fully fit Delta either. Just as in the case of influenza vaccination, the vaccine often deviates slightly from the rampant variant. It still protects, but not quite as well. Fresh protection is all the more important and there are plenty of fresh antibodies. This is also indicated by the results of Biontech on the effect of the booster against Omikron: One month after the third dose, the neutralizing effect of the antibodies against Omikron is only slightly worse than against Delta. Sandra Ciesek measured the same constellation after three months and has already seen a clear drop in protection. She only sees 25 percent of the neutralizing effect with Omikron compared to a neutralization of 95 percent with Delta.

Second, boosting is so important because we’re already in a wave again. The antibodies have the potential to break the wave because they can nip the infection in the bud, so to speak. Any host that eliminates the virus slows it down.

More from MIT Technology Review

More from MIT Technology Review

More from MIT Technology Review

More from MIT Technology Review

But even if the antibodies do not match the Omicron variant well, the vaccination protects. It may not prevent the disease from breaking out, but our immune system can do much more than antibodies against viruses. The immune system’s T-cell response is key to lasting protection. Marathon versus sprint – so to speak. This branch of the immune response does not break waves, but rather protects the individual, because T cells need some time. The virus can initially spread in its host until the memory kicks in and systematically clears it up. Man gets sick. Yes. But he has a good answer to the disease and, as a rule, can fight it on his own. And isn’t that what ultimately matters? Every year we accept various infections, some of which give us a running nose and some sore throats. Some bring a fever and tie us to the bed or sofa for a few days. There is currently no information available about this T cell response.

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This valuable T-cell immunity builds up differently through the vaccinations. The immune system reacts differently depending on how a vaccine is brought into the body and how it is structured. Example mRNA vaccines: mRNA is omnipresent in the organism, but only in the tiny zone between the cell nucleus and cytoplasm. Their job is to transport the information in the DNA in the nucleus that is currently needed from the nucleus into the cell plasma. There it is translated into proteins. However, any RNA that approaches a cell from the outside is a danger because it almost inevitably has to come from a virus. It therefore immediately and violently fires the immune system so that the mRNA does not even get into the cell.

The vaccination mRNA still has to enter the cell. For this purpose, the vaccination mRNAs that are currently being vaccinated are modified, as otherwise the side effects of the high vaccination doses required would be so severe that the vaccination would probably not be accepted. With this masquerade, the vaccine mRNA makes it into the cell undamaged, where it is translated into the vaccine protein. This triggers impressive antibody production.

What falls by the wayside, however, is the activation that triggers a real virus. The warning signal that an RNA is trying to hijack a cell. An important messenger substance is interferon-alpha. It is he who gives us the severe feeling of illness with the flu. The fever, the chills, the headache and body aches. This interferon-alpha is also an important trigger for the production of T cells. That is not to say that mRNA vaccines do not generate a T cell response. However, experts suspect that it will take longer – and they also assume that the long-term ability of the vaccination will improve with each booster.

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This is why the heterologous vaccination schemes – i.e. basic immunization with vaccines of different technologies, as the Standing Vaccination Commission describes – are currently considered to be particularly promising for long-term protection. Because they combine the T-cell machinery, because a vaccination vector presents a virus to the immune system, with the massive antibody production by the later inoculated mRNA.

How to turn it around: Vaccination protects, if not necessarily from infection, but from the intensive care unit. And who knows, maybe by spring, when Omikron will presumably have taken over, an adapted vaccine will already be available? Because that’s an invaluable benefit of the new vaccines – it only takes weeks to produce a new vaccine.

In addition, it is currently not yet clear how Omikron will behave, how difficult the gradients will be. As with Delta, this is the last information that we will probably receive about this variant, because we only get this information when it has spread to our own population. Until then, we simply don’t know.


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