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Why old COVID-19 vaccine efficacy struggles in face of omicron variants

KCBS Radio San Francisco 8/24/2022 Edie Frederick
Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center investigational pharmacy technician Sara Berech holds a dose of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine before it is administered in a clinical trial on December 15, 2020 in Aurora, Colorado. © Provided by KCBS Radio San Francisco Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center investigational pharmacy technician Sara Berech holds a dose of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine before it is administered in a clinical trial on December 15, 2020 in Aurora, Colorado.

SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS RADIO) – As Pfizer and Moderna seek FDA authorization for omicron-specific booster shots, health experts dive into why it's important to study COVID-19 variants and what they can tell us about treatments.

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Dr. Vineet Menachery, Assistant Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, told KCBS Radio's Melissa Culross and Eric Thomas on "Ask An Expert," since its birth, coronavirus has been on a mission to evade the immune system.

"As these new variants emerge, part of the issue is that they have an increased ability to get around our immune defenses, so developing new vaccine platforms that target these new variants will improve our immunity, is the hope," he said.

The current vaccines are still highly effective against severe disease — protecting the lungs and keeping the respiratory system intact — but are no longer able to stand against transmission. "This is the part of immunity that is really poorly understood," Menachery explained. "Developing better immune responses and more direct immune responses may help limit the spread of the virus."

This issue led health experts to look for a new booster shot that would specifically attack the omicron BA.4 and BA.5 variants.

"As we have progressed during the outbreak and we've seen changes in the virus, a lot of work has been put at determining how we need to change the vaccines to be better effective in dealing with the next variant that comes forward," Menachery said.

He admits that he does not know for sure if the virus will eventually outgrow this new shot, leading to the need for another variant-specific vaccine.

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