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Why more people are getting two different coronavirus vaccines

Some nations have tried that approach out of necessity, when supplies of a particular vaccine ran short, or out of caution, when questions were raised about the safety of a shot after some people had already received their first doses. U.S. regulators so far have been reluctant to encourage the practice.

June 28, 2021 / 07:21 AM IST
Representative image (Source: Reuters)

Representative image (Source: Reuters)

The most widely used coronavirus vaccines are designed as two-shot inoculations, and nearly everyone worldwide who has had both doses has received the same vaccine both times.

But that is changing, as more countries are allowing — and even, in some cases, encouraging — mix-and-match inoculation, with people receiving a first shot of one vaccine and then a second shot of a different one. On Tuesday, Germany’s government revealed that Chancellor Angela Merkel, 66, had received two different shots, adding to the growing interest in the practice.

Some nations have tried that approach out of necessity, when supplies of a particular vaccine ran short, or out of caution, when questions were raised about the safety of a shot after some people had already received their first doses. U.S. regulators so far have been reluctant to encourage the practice.

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But scientists and health policymakers are interested in the possibility that giving different shots to the same person could have significant advantages.

COVID-19 Vaccine

Frequently Asked Questions

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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Here are some common questions raised by mix-and-match vaccination.

What are the potential benefits?

Mixing vaccines — scientists call it “heterologous prime-boost” — is not a new idea, and researchers have experimented with it in fighting a handful of other diseases, including Ebola.

Scientists have long theorized that giving people two slightly different vaccines might generate a stronger immune response, perhaps because the vaccines stimulate slightly different parts of the immune system or teach it to recognize different parts of an invading virus.

“The argument is that one and one makes three,” said John Moore, a virus expert at Weill Cornell Medicine. “How well that argument holds up in practice in the COVID area is going to need to be judged by the actual data.”

In addition to the potential immunological benefits, mixing and matching also “offers much-needed flexibility when vaccine supplies are uneven or limited,” said Zhou Xing, an immunologist at McMaster University in Canada.

What do the data say?

Multiple clinical trials are currently underway to determine whether there are benefits or drawbacks. Researchers at the University of Oxford are testing different combinations of vaccines — including the AstraZeneca-Oxford, Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Novavax shots — in the Com-Cov trial, and the U.S. National Institutes of Health recently launched a trial of mixed booster doses.

Russian researchers are testing a combination of their Sputnik V vaccine and the AstraZeneca shot. Sputnik is, itself, somewhat based on a mix-and-match approach, with the first and second shots having different formulations.

Most studies are still in early stages, but some have released promising preliminary results. Last month, for instance, a team of Spanish researchers announced that people who received a dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, followed by a dose of the Pfizer vaccine, showed a robust immune response.

This regimen appeared to elicit a stronger immune response than two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, Xing said. Whether it is better than two doses of the Pfizer vaccine is not yet clear.

Is it safe?

Preliminary data from the Com-Cov study suggests that mixing and matching vaccines may increase the odds of mild and moderate side effects, including fever, fatigue and headache.

The data suggests that a mismatched regimen “might have some short-term disadvantages,” the researchers wrote, although it is also possible that the side effects may be a sign of a strong immune response. Most side effects faded within 48 hours, they found.

Overall, scientists say that they expect the data to show that the approach is safe.

“As we’ve learned in 18 months of COVID-19 shocks, never say never, but its really hard to rationalize any new risk associated with what is really a basic, tried and tested immunological approach,” Daniel Altmann, an immunologist at Imperial College London, said in an email.

Where is this happening?

Health authorities in a variety of countries are allowing some degree of mixing and matching. The United Kingdom began allowing vaccine mixing in the early days of its vaccine rollout.

Officials in a number of countries — including Germany, Canada, Sweden, France, Spain and Italy — have said that people who have received one dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has been linked to a rare blood-clotting disorder, can receive a different vaccine for their second shot. In response to delayed deliveries of the AstraZeneca shot, South Korea announced last week that health care workers who had received a first dose of that vaccine could receive the Pfizer shot as a second dose.

Canada’s vaccine advisory panel has also said that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines can be used interchangeably.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been more conservative. The agency says people who got one dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine may receive a second dose of the other in “exceptional situations,” such as when the original vaccine is not available.

“I cannot imagine that the FDA will allow this kind of mix-and-match strategy without properly evaluating clinical trial data,” Moore said.

Why did Merkel get two different shots?

Germany is fiercely protective of medical privacy, even that of its leaders, but Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, suggested that her vaccine choices were in part about setting an example.

Isolated reports of abnormal clotting and bleeding prompted many European countries to suspend use of the AstraZeneca shot in March. Most of them, including Germany, resumed its use a few weeks later, after a review by the European Union’s drug regulator.

But when Merkel got the AstraZeneca shot in April, many people remained deeply skeptical of it, slowing the vaccination campaign.

“With her first vaccination with AstraZeneca, the chancellor was possibly able to encourage many people to get vaccinated with AstraZeneca,” Seibert told reporters Wednesday.

(Author: Emily Anthes)/(c.2021 The New York Times Company)

New York Times