COVID-19 vaccines are saving an untold number of lives, but they can't stop the chaos when a hugely contagious new mutant bursts on the scene, leading people to wonder: Will we need boosters every few months? A new vaccine recipe? A new type of shot altogether?
That's far from settled, but with the shots still doing their main job many experts are cautioning against setting too high a bar.
"We need collectively to be rethinking what is the goal of vaccination," said Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, infectious disease chief at Brigham & Women's Hospital. "It's unrealistic ... to believe that any kind of vaccination is going to protect people from infection, from mild symptomatic disease, forever."
If the goal is preventing serious illness, "we may not need to be doing as much fine-tuning of the vaccines every time a new variant comes."
The virus is essentially shape-shifting as it mutates, with no way to know how bad the next variant will be. Already a sub-strain of omicron bearing its own unique mutations is circulating. Research is underway to create next-generation vaccines that might offer broader protection against future mutants -- but they won't be ready anytime soon.
The immediate solution: Getting today's shots into more arms will "reduce the opportunities for the virus to mutate and spawn new Greek letters that we then have to worry about," said Jennifer Nuzzo of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Why immunity isn't perfect
The job of blocking infection falls to antibodies, which form after either vaccination or a prior bout with COVID-19, ready to fight back the next time someone's exposed.
One problem: Mutations change the appearance of the spike protein that covers the coronavirus much like a crook switches disguises to evade capture. That's why omicron was more able to slip past that first defense than earlier variants -- its spike coating was harder for existing antibodies to recognize.
Also, the immune system isn't designed to be in a constant state of high alert, so the antibodies that fend off infection do wane over time. Several months after two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, people had little protection against an omicron infection — a result of both waning antibodies and the variant's mutation.
Thankfully, different immune system soldiers called T cells are key to prevent an infection from turning into severe illness — and that protection is lasting longer because T cells are recognizing other parts of the virus that don't mutate as easily.