However, Covid-19 vaccination is still expected to provide substantial protection against severe disease, and vaccine makers are working on updated shots that might elicit a stronger immune response against the variants.
“We observed 3-fold reductions of neutralizing antibody titers induced by vaccination and infection against BA4 and BA5 compared with BA1 and BA2, which are already substantially lower than the original COVID-19 variants,” Dr. Dan Barouch, an author of the paper and director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, wrote in an email to CNN.
“Our data suggest that these new Omicron subvariants will likely be able to lead to surges of infections in populations with high levels of vaccine immunity as well as natural BA1 and BA2 immunity,” Barouch wrote. “However, it is likely that vaccine immunity will still provide substantial protection against severe disease with BA4 and BA5.”
The newly published findings echo separate research by scientists at Columbia University.
They recently found that the BA.4 and BA.5 viruses were more likely to escape antibodies from the blood of fully vaccinated and boosted adults compared with other Omicron subvariants, raising the risk of vaccine-breakthrough Covid-19 infections.
BA.4 and BA.5 are the fastest spreading variants reported to date, and they are expected to dominate Covid-19 transmission in the United States, United Kingdom and the rest of Europe within the next few weeks, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
‘COVID-19 still has the capacity to mutate further’
In the New England Journal of Medicine paper, among 27 research participants who had been vaccinated and boosted with the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, the researchers found that two weeks after the booster dose, levels of neutralizing antibodies against Omicron subvariants were much lower than the response against the original coronavirus.
The neutralizing antibody levels were lower by a factor of 6.4 against BA.1; by a factor of 7 against BA.2; by a factor of 14.1 against BA.2.12.1 and by a factor of 21 against BA.4 or BA.5, the researchers described.
Among 27 participants who had previously been infected with the BA.1 or BA.2 subvariants a median of 29 days earlier, the researchers found similar results.
In those with previous infection — most of whom also had been vaccinated — the researchers described neutralizing antibody levels that were lower by a factor of 6.4 against BA.1; by a factor of 5.8 against BA.2; by a factor of 9.6 against BA.2.12.1 and by a factor of 18.7 against BA.4 or BA.5.
More research is needed to determine what exactly the neutralizing antibody levels mean for vaccine effectiveness and whether similar findings would emerge among a larger group of participants.
“Our data suggest that COVID-19 still has the capacity to mutate further, resulting in increased transmissibility and increased antibody escape,” Barouch wrote in the email. “As pandemic restrictions are lifted, it is important that we remain vigilant and keep studying new variants and subvariants as they emerge.”