Disturbing findings from Johns Hopkins University this past week, confirming what many had feared: the massive Covid lockdowns that destroyed the U.S. economy and so many lives had no positive impact on public health. It’s just the latest example of the chaos and confusion surrounding the pandemic and strategies to fight it. Since the beginning, we’ve consulted with a top virologist working for the U.S. military who has a standout record for accuracy to date. So today, we’re back at the army’s Ft. Detrick to find out more from Dr. John Dye.
Here at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, they’re building their own Omicron Coronavirus for research.
Dr. John Dye is the top virologist here, and deputy director of foundational sciences. It’s now a year and a half after our first visit to the place where some of the nation’s key biodefense research on Coronavirus is underway.
Sharyl: You said very early on before the vaccines were out that you anticipated they would not work for all that long, or they would not last for all that long and boosters would be needed. And yet it seemed like everybody was surprised when it was reported that after a certain period of months, immunity was waning for people.
Dr. John Dye: So I think scientists weren't sure. But when I looked at the immune responses that were being generated by the vaccines, they were very impressive short term, but that long lasting immunity was not generated with just one shot. So needing multiple shots was, in my opinion, what would be needed to actually achieve some sort of long-lasting effect.
Sharyl: So early on, some people said the vaccines would prevent infection, which it didn’t; said it would prevent spread, which it doesn't necessarily; said that nobody vaccinated would be very sick or ever end up in the hospital or die. And as each one of those things, people looked around and saw, that wasn't the case among people that they knew, that chipped away at the things that were said that they felt they could believe in.
Dye: So, expecting a vaccine to lead to no illness or no negative effects at all was very unrealistic. And I think it could have been messaged better what we expect. However, it's very clear that the vaccine is very advantageous at keeping people out of the hospitals. And it certainly is helpful as far as the symptoms that go along with it, decreasing those symptoms and allowing us to survive this infectious disease.
Sharyl: Something else you were right about: you said very early on, ‘there will be variants, there will be different forms of this that will come out.’ When the first hint at variants that we started paying attention to were reported, again, a lot of people, including medical people sometimes, acted very surprised by that.
Dye: I think if you look at the history of viruses and how they infect people, you had to expect that there would be variants that would come out. The protein on the outside of this virus is malleable. It's flexible. It can change. If it's vaccination or a treatment, that's going to put a pressure on it as well. The virus is going to try to outrun that. It's a seesaw. So, it's going to occur and there's nothing we can do about it, we just have to try to stay on top of it as best we can by looking at what's coming in the future and what we see in the community right now.
Sharyl: What have we learned about the power of natural immunity to provide a defense against repeat Covid? In other words, if someone's had an infection and fought it off?
Dye: If you've had and fought it off, you're much more likely be able to control that infection if you see it again, as long as that infection is similar to what you saw before. If there's a drastic shift away as far as the number of mutations that have occurred, you're not going to be able to control it as well.
Sharyl: If you had to estimate approximately what part of our population either has herd immunity— good defenses— because they've either had coronavirus or they've had vaccination or both, where are we?
Dye: I would guess if you look at vaccination and then in infection, we have to be looking at 70 to 80% of our population in the United States has been infected, but there are no hard numbers to back that up, but that would be my estimate.
Sharyl: That's a much higher number than CDC has estimated based on either models or blood samples, I'm not sure which.
Dye: But that was several months ago when that came out. And it is based on blood samples. But I think if I don't know of a single person who can't say they don't know someone who has been infected by coronavirus at this time, and especially the Omicron variant or the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's holidays, there certainly was a lot of infection that occurred across the United States.
Sharyl: When people talk about therapeutics, do they just mean basically treatments?
Sharyl: And where are we with that?
Dye: That's a great question. The last time we talked, there were no approved therapeutics at all. We have now a pill from Pfizer, monoclonal antibody cocktails, AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly, AbCellera, Adagio, Regeneron, that are all in the clinics and showing to be advantageous. Here at USAMRIID we actually help test and actually help developed a lot of those monoclonal antibodies. So, it's changed the landscape because now a person that is seen as a high risk, has comorbidity or mortality issues, they can receive that treatment on top of vaccination, or without a vaccination, and that gives them an advantage to controlling the viral infection.
Sharyl: Did monoclonal antibodies just get revoked or only some of them?
Dye: Some of them
Sharyl: The ones you developed or different ones?
Dye: Some of those... It's confusing. Some of the monoclonal antibodies were developed for Delta. Some of those monoclonal antibodies don't work against Omicron They still work against Delta, they don't work against Omicron. For instance, the GSK product, that's one of the monoclonal, it works against both Delta and Omicron. So, there are some that work against all.
Sharyl: So, that's still out there?
Dye: It's still out there, exactly.
I also asked Dr. Dye about the Amish approach to Covid, recently profiled here on Full Measure.
Sharyl: They let it roll through. They didn't stay shut down, they drank out of the same cup at church in May of 2020 and think they all got it. They didn't test, they don't go to the hospital, a lot of them got sick, some of them died, but no worse, and arguably, they say, better than the communities around them. So the question is: Is that a strategy? Did they do that right or did they do that better, perhaps?
Dye: If you look at the pandemic of 1918, there were certain cities like Philadelphia that shut down and there were certain cities like St. Louis that didn't shut down. And when they looked at the total number of deaths that occurred in both of those cases, they were very, very similar. It’s not so much necessarily about how many people die, it's how many people are inundating the hospitals, and how much bandwidth we have to provide appropriate care. So, while I understand the idea that maybe you end up at the same place and maybe you get there quicker by allowing it to run its course, you also have to look at all the other repercussions that go into that. But you also have to look on the other side of the coin, which is all the economic distress and everything and the psychological distress that goes on with letting it stay over time.
Sharyl: When does it end?
Dye: Wow. I wish I'd go to Vegas if I knew that. I don't know if ‘end’ is the right word, when we talked the last time, I fully expected that we would see different versions or different flavors of this particular virus over time. And it's going to continue to happen. What we hope is that our natural immunity, the vaccination immunity, our exposure to the virus over time, will prepare our immune system so that we're able to control it much like the way we control other infections that are endemic in our population.
Sharyl: If someone wants to get vaccinated, maybe every year if something comes up like that for Covid; but other people who are healthy want to rely on natural immunity either they've had it or they're okay with dealing with Covid, are both of those rational approaches based on what we know today?
Dye: I think if you look at influenza, people have used that approach for years. The influenza vaccine is offered every year. A certain percentage of Americans and globally choose to take the influenza vaccine and a certain percentage choose not to. I can see that as a model moving forward as far as the coronavirus vaccine. I think there will be a coronavirus vaccine that will be made seasonally by companies and it'll be made available to the public. And I think it'll be up to the public to choose whether they want to have that vaccine or not.
Sharyl (on-camera): Dr. Dye and his team are working on multiple “second generation” Covid vaccines, including a pan coronavirus vaccine that would hopefully work on a wide variety of different viruses and strains.