Amid evolving strains, COVID-19 vaccines likely need updates every 3 years, former FDA chief Gottlieb says

Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said Monday coronavirus vaccines will likely require updates every few years as surface proteins on the virus evolve to become unrecognizable to antibodies.

Gottlieb told CNBC co-hosts that while current COVID-19 vaccines and prior immunity are likely effective against the newly mutated strain of the virus rapidly circulating in the U.K., the evolving virus will necessitate surveillance by sequencing.

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“We thought every two, or maybe three years, I was saying that probably 6-8 months ago, every three years, that might still be the case,” Gottlieb said, referring to a potential timeframe for updated COVID-19 vaccines. “I don’t think this is something we need to update every season, but if it becomes easy to update it, you may do that, you may look at what the predominant strain is and try to update it more regularly.”

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned the mutated strain could be 70% more transmissible, though this figure was based on early projections and there is still significant uncertainty around the issue. Nevertheless, Johnson announced Tier 4 restrictions over the weekend, ushering in new lockdowns in London and southeast England to curb the spread of the mutated virus strain.

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Officials have said mutations in viruses are quite common, and while the flu evolves and requires an updated vaccine annually, Gottlieb expects the virus causing COVID-19 disease, SARS-CoV-2, to evolve at a slower pace. However, some viruses cannot change their surface proteins, such as the measles, the former FDA chief said.

“We now think that this is more transmissible,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to have mutated the surface proteins of the virus in a way that they would slip past our vaccines or prior immunity, in fact, we don’t think that that’s the case.

“But what this does suggest is that the virus probably will evolve its surface proteins in a way that they won’t be recognized by the antibodies we have right now and we will have to update the vaccines.”

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Gottlieb added that using the entire spike protein in the vaccines will prove beneficial due to a so-called polyclonal response.

“We’re developing antibodies to many different regions of that protein, so even if one part of that protein were mutated, and some antibodies no longer recognize it, there would be antibodies to other parts of that protein,” he explained.

The former FDA head says a future framework for updating COVID-19 vaccines will likely pivot around antibody responses or so-called immunogenicity data. However, scientists are still working to understand what level of induced antibodies will offer lasting protection.

Gottlieb also flagged possible issues stemming from antigen and antibody tests, potentially primed to a specific region of the spike protein, and upon change, the virus “could potentially slip past those tests.” 

The news comes as Johnson sets to convene the government’s emergency committee Monday after France closed its borders to arrivals from the U.K. to stem the spread of the new strain.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.