Will There Be a Coronavirus Vaccine For People 50-Plus?
The race to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) continues with companies conducting clinical trials, some of which are showing encouraging results for seniors.
Adults over 65 years old and people with underlying health conditions have been hit the hardest by COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 8 out of 10 COVID-19 deaths reported in the U.S. have been in adults 65 years old and older. Unfortunately, COVID-19 is what health officials describe as “novel,” meaning it’s a new virus that has not been identified. So, there is no cure or vaccine for the disease.
With scientists and pharmaceutical companies working around the clock to develop a vaccine, questions remain as to what type of vaccine will be the most effective for older adults, particularly those with underlying health conditions and weakened immune systems due to age.
COVID-19 Spike Protein Key in Clinical Trials
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the coronavirus has a “spike protein,” the familiar spikelike structures are seen sticking up on the surface in renderings of COVID-19. The spike protein binds with and infects human cells. The protein is a primary focus of scientists developing a COVID-19 vaccine.
The spike protein is what the immune system sees first, said Paul Duprex, director of the Center for Vaccine Research at the University of Pittsburgh. So, in clinical trials, the spike is introduced in the body to trigger the immune system to produce antibodies that recognize the virus and fight the infection.
Duprex said the question asked in clinical trials is whether the antibodies generated can neutralize the virus. Another unanswered question is whether this antibody reaction can happen in older adults?
Researchers base a vaccine’s effectiveness on whether the body can produce detectable levels of an antibody. But, Duprex wondered if 25, 30 or even 50 percent of a vaccine’s effectiveness will be enough to protect seniors from the coronavirus.
Because of questions created by the first phase of the COVID-19 vaccine development process, scientists are creating additional ingredients to add to vaccines to make them more effective for older adults with weakened immune systems. The ingredients are designed to “wake up” T-cells, which fight viruses in the body and have these cells target the coronavirus.
But, this is not easy, said Jay Evans, director of the Center for Translational Medicine at the University of Montana and a leading expert on the ingredients. Choosing the wrong ingredient could mean producing a healthy immune system for someone who is 30 while producing something that is not effective, and potentially damaging, for someone who is 70, Evans said.
The next step is to look at creating multiple vaccines, one with ingredients for younger people and a vaccine with different ingredients for older people, according to Evans.
Early Moderna Trial Results Promising
In August, Moderna Inc, a Massachusetts-based biotechnology company, announced that its experimental coronavirus vaccine is showing promising results in seniors participating in its clinical trial.
Moderna said the latest study data on its mRNA-1273 candidate vaccine showed that the immune responses in people between 56 and 70 years old, and participants over 70, were similar to the immune response of participants 18 to 55 years old. The investigational vaccine was co-developed by Moderna and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is part of the NIH.
For its Phase 3 clinical trial, Moderna is expected to enroll about 30,000 adult volunteers who are not infected with the coronavirus.
Clinical Trials Also Running On Antibody Treatment
Besides working on a COVID-19 vaccine, the NIH is also involved in a clinical trial to find an antibody treatment for people who have already been infected with the coronavirus. The trial will involve volunteers currently infected with “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2,” the virus which causes COVID-19, who have mild to moderate disease not requiring hospitalization.
Participants will be given either a placebo or LY-CoV555, an antibody made by Eli Lilly and Company in Indianapolis, Indiana. Antibodies, specifically the B and T cells, are produced by the immune system to fight infection.
The antibody treatment has the potential to neutralize the spike protein and prevent viral entry, according to Lauren Ehrlich, associate professor of molecular biosciences and oncology at the University of Texas at Austin. Antibody treatment could also reduce symptoms and length of infection in people already infected with COVID-19.
Seniors Encouraged To Protect Against COVID-19 And Flu
As clinical trials continue for COVID-19 vaccines, health officials are reminding seniors that the flu season is just around the corner. The CDC recommends taking steps to prevent the flu, which are similar to the actions the agency issued to prevent the coronavirus, such as:
- Avoid close contact with other people who are sick.
- Stay home when you are sick.
- Cover your mouth and nose.
- Wash your hands often.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
- Practice other good health habits, such as cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces, especially when someone is ill.
While preparing for flu season, seniors should also continue to reduce their risk of exposure to COVID 19. Evans recommends, especially for people over 60, to boost their immune system by maintaining an active lifestyle, eating healthy, sleeping well, and maintaining other good habits that drive the immune system “in the right direction.”