Xiaoping DONG: COVID-19 may become a seasonal disease, vaccine research and development needs to be accelerated
At the 2023 National Vaccines and Health Conference held recently, Xiaoping DONG, Chief Expert of Virology of China CDC, gave an in-depth analysis of the progress of COVID-19 prevention and control and the research and application of COVID-19 vaccine, which attracted thousands of online and offline professionals from the industry. All participants benefited a lot from the presentation.

Xiaoping DONG said, the titer of COVID-19 neutralizing antibodies in the body does gradually decrease over time, and it is necessary to receive COVID-19 vaccine again before the antibody drops significantly in the body to effectively prevent reinfection. With multiple strains of Omicron circulating in different countries and regions at this stage and for some time to come, "the prevention and control of COVID-19 is likely to be a seasonal immunization strategy," he said.

As mentioned in the Report on the Work of the Government in 2023, China will manage COVID-19 with measures against Class B infectious diseases. With a focus on protecting health and preventing severe diseases, the epidemic prevention and control and medical treatment of the elderly, children and those suffering from underlying diseases should be given priority. Additionally, the iterative upgrading of vaccines and the research and development of new drugs should be advanced to effectively meet people's needs for medical and drug use.

On January 26, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suggested that COVID-19 vaccines may need to be updated annually as the virus continues to evolve. The FDA will select mainstream strains for vaccine development in the spring, so that the updated vaccine can be rolled out each September in time for the vaccination campaign in the autumn.

Meanwhile, the FDA recommends that most people get vaccinated against COVID-19 in each autumn, so as to respond to the COVID strains that may circulate during the winter. For those at high risk of infection, including the elderly and immunocompromised, the FDA proposal suggests that these groups continue to receive two doses of COVID-19 vaccine per year.

So far, 50 COVID-19 vaccines have been approved in 201 countries, and Xiaoping DONG offered five suggestions for next steps in the development of COVID-19 vaccines in China:

First, based on the study of the Omicron variant, we need to develop a broad-spectrum vaccine and consider a multivalent vaccine in combination with local circulating strains.

Second, for seasonal infectious diseases that may occur, a rapid vaccine strain strategy and technology platform should be established. Once the dominant strains are formed in the world, vaccines can be developed in the shortest time. "For example, the strain subtype of influenza is usually announced in February, and the vaccine for it can be released in July or August; to produce a vaccine for COVID-19 within five months, we need to accelerate every step, from the construction of vaccine strains to the establishment of production pipelines."

Third, the key steps in the approval and batch issuance of vaccines for COVID-19 could be further facilitated;

Fourth, vaccines that can be administered by intranasal or inhalation methods would make it easier and more efficient for vaccine companies to make inputs;

The vaccines to be developed can be used in groups such as those at high risk of developing the disease (the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions) and those at high occupational risk (doctors in public health and clinical fields).

Variant XBB.1.16 detected in China

Recently, the New Covid-19 variant XBB.1.16 has become the focus of many people. According to reports from countries around the world, XBB.1.16 has been detected in 29 countries, including China, India, Singapore, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, and XBB.1.16 infections have shown a rapid growth trend. XBB.1.16 now accounts for more than 21 percent of COVID-19 cases in the south-central United States and has led to new cases in India returning to an eight-month high, potentially becoming the world's next dominant variant.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

At the end of March, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, COVID-19 Technical Lead of WHO, publicly stated that XBB.1.16 has an additional mutation in the spike protein, which increases infectivity and has the possibility of increasing pathogenicity, namely, it has a strong immune escape ability; A study by the University of Tokyo showed that the transmission efficiency of XBB.1.16 was 1.17 to 1.27 times than that of XBB.1 and XBB.1.5. Therefore, experts from various countries remind the elderly population, patients with underlying diseases and patients with respiratory diseases to be vigilant.

Vaccination is needed for specific groups

Recently, the Joint Prevention and Control Mechanism of the State Council for Novel Coronavirus Infections has simultaneously released the "Work Plan on Vaccination Against the Recent Novel Coronavirus Infections" (hereinafter referred to as "the Plan"), which makes it clear that some people still need to be vaccinated at this stage. Under the new policy, people who are not infected and have not completed the established immunization procedures need to be vaccinated against COVID-19; people who have been infected but have not completed basic immunity need to receive another dose of COVID-19 vaccine three months after infection to strengthen the body's immune system against the novel coronavirus.