Opinion | The State of Immunity

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By Deepta Bhattacharya

Dr. Bhattacharya is a professor of immunology at the University of Arizona.

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a protracted battle between a generation-defining virus and scientists working at a breakneck pace to fight it. Following the development of the remarkably effective first-generation Covid-19 vaccines, the virus made its response: More infectious variants have emerged, capable of infecting people who have been vaccinated or were previously infected. This is by no means a failure of the vaccines, which continue to keep millions of people protected from the most devastating consequences of the virus. But science should be ready to make its next move.

Initially, people who received the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer or Moderna were around 95 percent less likely to get Covid-19 than those who had no prior immunity. Protection against severe disease was strong. Countries with high vaccine uptake saw coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and death rates plummet.

Given these powerful tools, it seemed that the worst of the pandemic would rapidly be put behind us. And it likely has been. Despite an astonishingly large fraction of the country becoming infected during this winter’s Omicron wave, deaths from Covid-19 were lower than or not far surpassing those of previous waves that caused far fewer infections. These deaths were much less likely to occur in those who were vaccinated compared to those who weren’t. Beyond the vaccines, antiviral medications have been developed that are of particular benefit to those who are unvaccinated or immunocompromised. There are many tools now that make Covid-19 less of a threat than it was in 2020.

It’s also true that the road out of the pandemic has been bumpier than many had hoped. Over half of the U.S. population has been infected, and some more than once. Importantly, post-vaccination infections and re-infections only rarely land people in the hospital, but the experience can nonetheless be miserable and disruptive.

The Covid situation, in terms of hospitalizations and deaths, is in a much better place now, but it is not the best science can do, and we must continue to advance against it. There are several ways to improve the state of immunity.

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