A number of queries regarding the Covid vaccine were answered in a recent Q&A session with three German experts in the medical field, organised by the Science Media Centre.

Prof. Dr. Klaus Cichutek (President of the Paul-Ehrlich-Institute), Prof. Dr. Ulrike Protzer (Director of Munich University's Virology Institute) and Prof. Dr. Leif Erik Sander answered journalists' questions at a discussion organised by the German arm of the Science Media Centre.

Why are infections so high at the moment?

The Omicron variant spread across Europe in a matter of mere weeks, leading to record high numbers of new infections. However, due to the equally high number of vaccinated people, or people who have already recovered from the virus, at present hospitals are not suffering from the pressure observed in previous waves of the virus. Experts have called Omicron an "Immune-Escape-Variant".

Extract from Prof. Dr. Ulrike Protzer (in German)

Virologist Prof. Dr. Ulrike Protzer said the immune response was improving based on the amount of contact people have had with the virus, whether the contact takes place in the form of two vaccinations, or vaccinations and an infection. This could signify more optimistic developments in the immune response to future variants.

How many more vaccinations are required?

Are three jabs enough? Or will we need a fourth, or even yearly jabs?

Science does not yet have a definitive solution to these questions, but more and more studies are showing that three jabs have triggered a significant immune response in the majority of recipients. This means that three doses of the vaccine have so far proven to prevent serious illness against all known variants to date.

Extract Prof. Dr. Leif Erik Sander (in German)

Prof. Dr. Leif Erik Sander, infectiologist, said three jabs created a good base immunity for the majority of people. However, immunity would decrease over time, as would the number of antibodies. He added that contact with the virus could improve the immune response through natural contact with the virus, so that contact with the virus would be a booster in itself. It remains to be seen whether this is sufficient for the elderly, who have a much higher risk of a more serious illness. At the moment it would be difficult to say whether the entire population requires additional boosters.

Will there be a specialised vaccine against Omicron?

At the time of writing, three vaccine suppliers have said they will adapt their vaccines against Omicron, with potential authorisation in the second quarter of 2022. However, the experts said with the current high infection numbers there was no sense in waiting, especially for people who have the option to get a booster. Prof. Dr. Klaus Cichutek said clinical trials were due to begin next week.

As it stands, there is limited capacity to manufacture adapted vaccines. It also remains unclear whether these adapted vaccines will be approved in the near future, while the World Health Organization wants to draw up guidelines that decide when and according to which specifications adapted vaccines against new virus variants should be approved in the future.

Extract from Prof. Dr. Klaus Cichutek (in German)

Will the Omicron wave cause immunity for enough people?

Many people are hoping that the high infection numbers will create herd immunity among the population within a short period of time. However, many scientists have shattered these hopes, including Prof Dr. Leif Erik Sander. He said Omicron could be a variant that could escape the immune response, meaning vaccinated and non-vaccinated people could be infected equally.

If 10% of the entire population were to become infected, then only 10% of the non-vaccinated would be infected. Immunising the general population through natural infection is but an illusion, he went on. If that happened, it would not only cause problems for the health care sector, but also for other critical sectors, he concluded.

Extract from Prof. Dr. Leif Erik Sander (in German)

Listen to the full briefing (in German) here.