No magic bullet yet: Gear up for yearly Covid jab

Covid-19 vaccine

A health worker prepares to administer a Covid-19 vaccine at Dagoretti Deputy County Commissioner’s office in  Nairobi on February 3, 2022.

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • About eight million Kenyans have been fully vaccinated, with over 274,000 getting their booster shots.
  • Public health experts say they are not quite sure what the future holds for Covid-19 vaccines.

Scientists are considering an annual jab for sustained protection against Covid-19 as the immunity provided by vaccines wanes with time.

About eight million Kenyans have been fully vaccinated, with over 274,000 getting their booster shots months after their primary vaccination. 

The booster shots are given because of the waned immunity and they will need to be regularly repeated to maintain protection against the virus.

Emerging data consistently shows that vaccine effectiveness against asymptomatic patients declines over several months, especially among older adults who might have weaker immune systems.

“There is evidence of insufficient protection against these disease outcomes over time,” the World Health Organisation states.

It further elaborates that the degree of the waning of immunity and the need for booster shots may differ between vaccines, target populations, the virus in circulation, the variant of concern, and the intensity of exposure.

However, according to the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, it is not known how long protection lasts for those who are vaccinated.

Another aspect that has driven scientists to develop a yearly vaccine is the fact that even fully vaccinated individuals are becoming ill with Covid-19, though not in intensive care units.

Booster shot

“We’ll be looking at deaths; we’ll be looking at hospitalisations; we’ll be looking at various gradations of disease. The bottom line is that we don’t know what will offer full protection,” Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said recently.

Public health experts say they are not quite sure what the future holds for Covid-19 vaccines.

However, there is a likelihood that more and more of the Covid-19 shots could be needed on a yearly basis, similar to how flu shots are recommended before each cold season.

“We are not sure yet whether we will be having the vaccine after every year or two or five but what I know is that we must put the virus under control. We are still gathering more data and we shall know with time,” said Dr Archana Chatterjee, the dean of the Chicago Medical School at Rosalind Franklin University.

“But I do anticipate that this will be required on a periodic basis to keep it under control.”

Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla has since confirmed that they are anticipating an annual Covid-19 booster shot. 

“Yes, it is happening with the flu. Every year, you need to go get your vaccine. It is going to be the same with Covid-19, where every year you have to get your annual shot of Covid-19 vaccine to be protected.” 

Kenya’s Covid-19 vaccine chairman, Dr Willis Akhwale, told the Sunday Nation that given the virus has become endemic and “we will have it for a while,” there is a need for a long-term solution and this will be informed by research findings.

Annual undertaking

Endemic means disease has a constant presence in a population but is not affecting an alarmingly large number of people, as typically seen in a pandemic.

“What we need is how to protect ourselves fully against the virus. Do we go by the booster shots from time to time or do we need a long-term solution? This will be dictated by the research that is ongoing,” he said.

America’s Food and Drug Administration has been having a discussion on vaccination becoming an annual undertaking, meaning Covid-19 vaccines to be developed in the future may have different formulae from the current ones.

“As a country, we will go by science. This is something proven and safe for use. Developing a yearly vaccine means that the level of protection will continue to increase year by year,” said Dr Akhwale.

Not many Kenyans are going for their vaccination, with the country vaccinating as low as 24,000 people per day from a high of over 200,000 people per day. This clearly tells that not so many people will go for their booster shots as required.

So far, over 17 million doses of vaccines have been administered in the country, and only eight million, which is 29 per cent of the population, are fully vaccinated. And of this number, only 274, 284 have gone for their booster shots.

Kenya aims to vaccinate over 27 million people by the year end. Since the first case was recorded, about 323,350 have contracted the virus, with 6,547 dying.

Cumulatively, more elderly people have died, registering 4,337 deaths, with the other age groups accounting for the rest of the fatalities. 

In medical circles, a pandemic is the gravest scenario when it comes to infectious diseases, dreaded by doctors and other healthcare practitioners for obvious reasons. Pandemics spread fast, they evolve equally fast, have the highest number of casualties and often ransack healthcare systems.