In early 2020, many thought the coronavirus would be similar to prior flu season — and that obviously isn't how things played out.
Consequently, one doctor is urging everyone to slow down in the booster shot debate and other open questions.
“We model based on other diseases like the flu, but it’s not the flu,” Dr. Michael Saag, associate dean for global health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said on Yahoo Finance Live (video above). “It’s something else. And we’re learning as we go but we’ve only been a year and a half into it, and it feels like over a decade and a half because of the pain that it’s caused and the death and the destruction, but we only have a year and a half. So prognosticating is very difficult. As Yogi Berra said, ‘predictions are difficult, especially if they involve the future.’”
From 2010 to 2020, according to CDC estimates, the flu has resulted in 9 million to 41 million illnesses, 140,000-710,000 hospitalizations, and 12,000-52,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. As for coronavirus, there have been more than 44 million cases and 713,000 deaths in the country since January 2020.
“One thing we’ve learned in this whole epidemic is that we can’t predict it very well,” Saag reiterated. “Why? Because it’s new. We don’t have any history to go on.”
'There's no vaccine' that's 100% effective
The development of COVID-19 vaccines has made a major impact throughout the world. In the U.S., 56.4% of the total population is fully vaccinated while 65.3% have received at least one dose.
All three vaccines available in the U.S. — from Pfizer (PFE), Moderna (MRNA), and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) — have shown to be significantly effective at preventing hospitalization and death from COVID-related complications. But many are now wondering how long immunity will last from the vaccines.
“When you say efficacy, what you’re talking about is prevention of a breakthrough infection,” Saag continued. “What’s the other story in that study is that there were no deaths to speak of. It was still protective against hospitalization and death. And at the end of the day, that’s what we want the vaccine to do.”
According to several studies, immunity from the Pfizer vaccine has been shown to wane after six months from the second dose. And due to the evolution of mutant strains of the virus — also known as variants — the vaccines have become slightly less effective at preventing infection.
“Part of the debate is… what are we going to focus on here for efficacy?” Saag said. “Is it breakthrough, prevention of that, or is it going to be prevention of hospitalization and death? And I think that’s the controversy right now.”
There have been approximately 12,908 patients with breakthrough infections who were hospitalized or died as of Aug. 30, according to the CDC, translating to less than 0.008% of the vaccinated population. An overwhelming majority of hospitalizations and deaths are from unvaccinated individuals.
“It’d be wonderful if it prevented infection 100%,” Saag said. “There’s no vaccine that we have that does that, especially look at the flu. In an ordinary flu season, about half of the people who have had a flu vaccine will get the flu, but the vaccine protects them against hospitalization and, to some degree, death. So that’s really what we’re looking for.”
The concerns over waning immunity have led to the development of booster shots, though both health and government officials have been unable to come to an official consensus on when to administer boosters.
“We have to ask the public to be patient as we work through this,” Saag said. “We just don’t know how often a booster will be needed or who it will be needed in or how often. And that’s really what we’re watching unfold.”
All three of the vaccine makers in the U.S. are developing booster shots. So far, Pfizer’s is the only one that’s been officially approved by the FDA. Health officials have said it should be given eight months after the second dose, while the White House is encouraging it to be after six months.
“Of course there’s going to be debate … on finding the right thing to do,” Saag said. “And I think it’s pretty clear that, at least for the Pfizer vaccine, waiting for people who are over 65 and especially those who are immunocompromised, they should get a booster. The rest of us should just wait a little bit, let the data sort itself out.”
Adriana Belmonte is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow her on Twitter @adrianambells and reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.