A new generation of COVID-19 vaccine, or running out of steam? Here’s how experts see the pandemic ending

A new generation of COVID-19 vaccine, or running out of steam? Here’s how experts see the pandemic ending

Will it end with a new generation, a future-proof vaccine or will the virus keep mutating until it eventually runs out of steam?

Two-and-a-half-years in and Australia is in the grip of a fourth COVID-19 wave.

It’s predicted to be shorter and sharper than before, but it will not be the last. 

So what will the end look like?

Experts differ on what will finally bring this pandemic to a close.

Future-proofing vaccines 

Deborah Burnett is on a team at Garvan Institute of Medical Research working on a transmission-blocking or “universal” vaccine.

Since the first variants were identified in late 2020, COVID-19 has mutated to produce multiple variants and subvariants, putting us in what some call a “COVID soup”. 

A new generation of COVID-19 vaccine, or running out of steam? Here’s how experts see the pandemic ending
Dr Deborah Burnett says a universal vaccine could end the pandemic. (Supplied: Garvan Institute)

New subvariants appear more likely to evade current vaccines (although the vaccines we have now are still extremely effective at preventing serious illness and death).

A “variant-proof” vaccine would target a part of the virus which cannot easily mutate, making it effective against not just the variants we have had so far, but future ones, too, Dr Burnett says.

“There was this idea of herd immunity and, at first, people thought that, maybe, you could get that from natural infection, and then people thought you could get that from vaccines,” she says.

“But, unfortunately, the virus has found a way around that by mutating.”

A health worker takes a nasal swab sample from a woman
Vaccines are still being developed and approved around the world. India approved a new nasal vaccine in September.(AP: Anupam Nath)

In an article in the Lancet medical journal earlier this year, Annelies Wilder-Smith from the London school of hygiene and tropical medicine wrote that, until we have new vaccines that protect against transmission, “public health and social measures will still need to be tailored towards mitigating community and household transmission in order to keep the pandemic at bay”.

The team at the Garvan Institute have developed a tool to test and triage multiple vaccines from labs around Australia, to select the most-effective ones, and have seen “promising results” from pre-clinical trials, Dr Burnett said.

“We’re really hoping that, in the next year or two, there is a vaccine available that effectively ends transmission so it will finally be over.”

‘Running out of ways to mutate’

Professor Robert Booy thinks we are nearing the end of the pandemic — but says it won’t come about because of a transmission-blocking vaccine. 

“This new wave is a conglomeration of a whole bunch of subvariants but they’re still Omicron — in 12 months we haven’t had a new variant, we’ve just had mutations,” Professor Booy, an infectious disease and vaccine expert, says.

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