The coronavirus pandemic has reached an unsettling new phase, with variant strains of the virus popping up worldwide, including here in California.
To explain how these variants came to be and what they mean for public health, Los Angeles Times Executive Chairman Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong has released the third installment of his video series, The Science Behind the Coronavirus. Dr. Soon-Shiong spoke with scientist Tulio De Oliveira, a virus hunter based in South Africa, who recently discovered the highly contagious variant that has exploded in that country and is now here in the U.S.
What You Need To Know
- The pandemic has reached an unsettling new phase, with variant strains of the virus popping up worldwide, including California
- Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong is a surgeon and scientist who has spent his career studying the human immune system to fight infectious disease
- His company, Immunitybio, has a COVID-19 vaccine candidate that’s currently in phase 1 trials
- The LA Times series The Science Behind the Coronavirus can be viewed in full on the LA Times website at LATimes.com/secondopinion
Dr. Soon-Shiong is a surgeon and scientist who has spent his career studying the human immune system to fight infectious disease. His company, Immunitybio, has a COVID-19 vaccine candidate that’s currently in phase 1 trials. The company has also received approval to begin trials in South Africa. Dr. Soon-Shiong joined us to talk about the latest in the fight against the coronavirus. He explained how it was inevitable that the viruses would mutate.
"Does it make any sense to create a vaccine based on the strategy of antibodies to try and block it, knowing that those antibodies may be ineffective as the virus adapts to those antibodies? This is just like what we talked about in cancer. The virus will adapt to the treatment you give it. And if you are treating these antibodies to just block rather than a T cell that kills, then we should actually have a different approach to treat this virus as if it were cancer and develop a vaccine that not just has antibodies, but T cells that kill. That was my call, and sadly, every vaccine out there is an antibody-based vaccine," said Dr. Soon-Shiong.
Within the virus, the protein that stimulates most of the T cells are inside the body in the heart of the virus.
"So you need to develop a vaccine that addresses this nucleocapsid as well as this outside spike protein that is meant to mutate," Dr. Soon-Shiong added. "If you do both, you generate the maximum activation of your immune system. And this is the strategy that we have been screaming about from day one, and thank God it persisted, and we are now in phase one."
Questions are being raised on whether someone can still get sick from variant staring if they had a vaccine from an older lineage.
"Once this virus sees an antibody, it mutates against that antibody," he continued. "That is scary, and it is called a convergent mutation. It is not that it transmits from one human being to another. It is adopting to what is inside a test tube of a human body. When they tested the patients, who had recovered from the first wave of the virus using their convalescent plasma against this mutation, it did not block it. They tested multiple monoclonal antibodies, and it did not block it. Therefore, the efficacy of taking a strategy of a vaccine that just uses blocking as its tool is less efficacious than if you had taken a different approach."
The take-home message is that people need to get vaccinated because it does mitigate severe disease, but it does not prevent infection.
“So, you need to take the same precautions: mask, social distance. Do not have vaccine parties because we are going to have this mutation taking off in our country very soon,” said Dr. Soon-Shiong.
The LA Times series The Science Behind the Coronavirus can be viewed in full here.
CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong's name was misspelled in the headline. The error has been corrected. (February 10, 2021)