26 September 2023

Analysis: Experts say vaccines do not fuel COVID-19 variants or make humans more prone to infections

A Wall Street Journal columnist misrepresented and neglected conclusions of scientific studies to support a hypothesis that repeated vaccinations could trigger rapid virus mutation.

Virologists are rejecting claims being made in a leading U.S. newspaper opinion column that repeated vaccinations could be fueling new COVID-19 variants.

This came after an opinion article, published by the Wall Street Journal’s Life Science column on Jan. 1, claiming that repeated vaccinations may make people “more susceptible to XBB”, an Omicron subvariant of the COVID-19, while possibly “fueling the virus’s rapid evolution”.

The recent emergence of the highly-contagious Omicron subvariant XBB has caused a rapid flare-up of infections in at least 38 countries, according to the World Health Organization, including the U.S., U.K. and Denmark.

The WSJ piece cited four academic studies to back its claims questioning the efficacy of vaccinations, but Annie Lab found that they were quoted out of context and the conclusions in the research papers do not support its claim.

Professor David Ho Dai-I, a world-renowned microbiologist at Columbia University and one of the authors for the cited academic studies, criticized the false claims made in the article.

“The [WSJ] article is slanted against vaccination, which is not right. They also seem to claim that vaccination increases infection. That’s obviously wrong,” Ho told Annie Lab.

In the article, author Allysia Finley alleged that repeated COVID jabs could prompt viruses to evolve and escape acquired immunity.

She also wrote that COVID booster vaccinations, including the bivalent vaccines, had diminishing benefits which might cause individuals to be vulnerable to new variants.

Finley is an editorial board member of the paper.

According to CrowdTangle, the social media monitoring tool by Meta, the article garnered close to 15,000 interactions on Facebook, including more than 4,000 shares.

It was also discussed among netizens on LIHKG, a popular Hong Kong internet forum, Twitter and Reddit.

The piece was also shared by politicians and vaccine critics, including U.S. senator Ron Johnson and a former Australian member of the House of Representatives, Craig Kelly, on social media.

What medical experts say

Professor Jin Dongyan, a virologist at the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Hong Kong, rejected Finley’s claims.

He said vaccinations would not lead to rapid virus evolution nor an inefficient immune response when being confronted with new strains.

“She basically turned things upside down,” Jin told Annie Lab in a phone interview.

“Virus constantly mutates. It’s a selective process driving viruses to evolve and adapt to the [immune system of the] host in order to survive… Let’s not blame this on the vaccines,” Jin said.

According to Jin, mutation would happen after a virus infected a host and replicated itself. He said it would tend to replicate and mutate less within the system of a vaccinated person.

Jin used the Omicron as an example of how a strain could gain dominance over other variants in the evolution process for its ability to evade acquired immunity from past vaccinations and infections for it to reinfect people.

In her article, Finley said repeated vaccinations might make people more susceptible to the XBB subvariant. But this was ruled out by Jin.

He said scientists could constantly update vaccine content to catch up with viral mutation. However, the real purpose of vaccination was meant to reduce severe symptoms rather than prevent infections, especially among elderly citizens, Jin said.

Dr. Siddharth Sridhar, an HKU clinical virologist, said it was “absurd” to imply vaccines could fuel new COVID variants.

Sridhar said the virus would constantly mutate, making the emergence of new variants a natural and expected outcome.

“Over time, the virus evolves to do one thing. [That is to] reinfect people who have been previously infected or vaccinated. So even if vaccines did not exist, we would still see antibody evasive variants emerging,” said Sridhar.

“The only difference is that vaccines help diminish death rates in this process,” he added.

The WSJ columnist made her point by linking the surging XBB subvariant infections in Singapore and the northeastern U.S. where vaccination and booster rates remained some of the highest in the respective regions.

But Sridhar said this was an insensible correlation as “outbreaks often gain pace in urban centers with high population density.”

Meanwhile, Annie Lab looked into the four academic studies cited in the Wall Street Journal opinion article.

We found out that three were quoted out of context and the fourth one is a preprint (not yet peer-reviewed).

What the four studies indicate

1. Nature

The study “Imprinted SARS-CoV-2 humoral immunity induces convergent Omicron RBD evolution,” which was published in Nature in December 2022, has been quoted throughout the article.

It was conducted by a team of Chinese researchers who have proven how viral evolution trends could be forecasted which would help prepare better COVID medicines and vaccines, said Cao Yunlong, the paper’s lead author and a researcher with Peking University’s Biomedical Pioneering Innovation Centre, in an interview with China National Radio in December.

But the columnist took the study out of context to back up her arguments against repeated vaccination. She claimed that vaccine-induced immunity could prompt different variants of the coronavirus to simultaneously evolve with the same antibody-evasive mutations.

While the research did present the above evolutionary process, it was only meant to give insight into predicting the evolution trend of viruses.

The corresponding authors of the research did not respond to Annie Lab’s requests for comment.

2. Cell

Finley quoted a study “Alarming antibody evasion properties of rising SARS-CoV-2 BQ and XBB subvariants,” in the January issue of the Cell journal where she stated that bivalent vaccines would only slightly increase antibody levels against XBB.

The writer used the finding as a foundation to question if booster shots could improve protection against XBB.

David Ho of Columbia University and one of the paper’s authors said the data quoted was “largely true” but the claims made in the WSJ article were wrong.

“Protection against infection by these new variants is now very low, but protection against severe disease remains robust. The latter is what’s most important,” Ho said in a written response to Annie Lab.

3. Correspondence letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine

A letter to the editor published in the New England Journal of Medicine in December 2022 discussed another study that also reported a similar result to the Cell article on the neutralization efficiency of booster vaccines.

It highlighted that the neutralizing activity against all Omicron subvariants, especially the XBB, was better for those receiving bivalent boosters than the original strain vaccines.

The author concluded “an overall neutralization benefit” with bivalent boosters is apparent but it was not mentioned in Finley’s claims.

The corresponding author of the study declined to comment on the WSJ opinion piece.

4. The Cleveland Clinic study

The last study quoted by the columnist was “Effectiveness of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Bivalent Vaccine.” It was posted on a health science website where researchers can self-publish unrefereed articles on Dec. 19, 2022.

The preprint study was conducted by the Cleveland Clinic in the U.S. to evaluate the efficacy of a bivalent COVID vaccine among its employees.

Although the WSJ article implies that the study found the number of vaccinations correlates with the risks of contracting COVID-19, the paper’s corresponding researcher and an infectious disease physician at the clinic, Nabin Shrestha, told PolitiFact in January that “the data did not find a link between the bivalent shot and a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.”

In fact, the study’s early conclusion showed the booster is effective in preventing infection, Shrestha was quoted as saying. He has not responded to Annie Lab’s request for comments at the time of writing.

The research article, which has not yet been evaluated by other experts, lists several limitations. The website medRxiv specifically cautions that:

Preprints are preliminary reports of work that have not been certified by peer review. They should not be relied on to guide clinical practice or health-related behavior and should not be reported in news media as established information. (Emphasis added by Annie Lab)

A Bloomberg Opinion columnist, Faye Flam, who has a science writing background, also refuted the Wall Street Journal article.

You can read other fact-checks over similar claims investigated by reporters from Reuters, PolitiFact and Lead Stories.