As if the news concerning COVID-19 weren’t bad enough, one press release yesterday stands out as an attempt to incite panic in order to draw attention to a person and institution.
The press release, from Columbia University, “New Study Adds More Evidence for Omicron Immune Evasion,” draws attention to an unpublished, non-reviewed article posted on the web by Dr. David Ho, a faculty member at the university.
The piece suggests that there is “new data” showing the ability of the Omicron variant to escape vaccine immunity. It has achieved internet notoriety from intimating that booster vaccinations from current vaccines are also lacking in the ability to protect against Omicron infection.
Dr. Ho, a well-known AIDS researcher, is quoted as saying, “The new results suggest that previously infected individuals and fully vaccinated individuals are at risk for infection with the Omicron variant. Even a third booster shot may not adequately protect against Omicron infection, but of course it is advisable to get one, as you’ll still benefit from some immunity.”
Dr. Ho also adds, “It is not too far-fetched to think that SARS-CoV-2 is now only a mutation or two away from being completely resistant to current antibodies, either the monoclonal antibodies used as therapies, or the antibodies generated by vaccination or infection with previous variants.”
Pretty strong statements that will certainly draw attention to a press release!
But there is actually very little new data presented in this unpublished manuscript, and what is there involves information from very few people.
Dr. Ho’s work uses test tube experiments with a synthetic virus to determine if blood from immunized individuals can “neutralize” the virus and prevent it from infecting tissue culture cells. This is identical to prior work from Pfizer and several other groups showing the ability of Omicron to escape blood neutralization generated by two doses of vaccine.
Interestingly, the manuscript examines blood samples from only 13 and 12 individuals who (respectively) received the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. This was far fewer individuals that what was used in Pfizer’s studies. The data on the Johnson and Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines were even less robust, evaluating only 9 and 5 people’s blood.
Oh, and that ground-breaking data on “booster” vaccination? It was based on test tube inhibition from only 13 Pfizer and 2(!) Moderna boosted individuals.
That scant data actually shows significant omicron neutralizing activity in these individuals, equal to that seen with earlier COVID-19 viruses. This was what Pfizer’s studies demonstrated that led them to argue that vaccine boosters would help protect against Omicron.
Most importantly, Dr. Ho’s study did not look at cellular immunity or the other ways vaccine immunity could protect from COVID-19 infection. This is important since real world data from hundreds of thousands of individuals show two doses provide 70% reduction in hospitalizations.
Together, this suggests Dr. Ho is only “one or two mutations away” from true relevance!