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Talking vaccines: Professor Heidi Drummer with ABC Melbourne's Raf Epstein

Burnet Institute

03 February, 2021

Talking vaccines

One of Burnet’s leading vaccine experts and Program Director Disease Elimination, Professor Heidi Drummer joined ABC Melbourne’s Drive presenter Raf Epstein to discuss the latest news about the COVID-19 vaccines, their efficacy and whether they can prevent transmission.

If you missed hearing the fascinating segment, listen by clicking on the link or read the transcript below.

Find out more about Heidi’s research and Burnet’s Know-C19 initiative.

Rafael Epstein, ABC Radio Melbourne
I’m not quite sure for how long we’re just going to check in on the numbers around COVID. And also things like the vaccine, how they’re working, what we’re learning about them. Professor Heidi Drummer joins us. She’s program director for disease elimination, which is a good thing at the Burnet Institute. Professor, thanks for joining us. Just a very broad question. What are you seeing about the various vaccines? How do you think they are proving themselves right now?

Professor Heidi Drummer, Burnet Institute
Yeah, look, all of the vaccines are showing that they can certainly reduce very severe COVID infections, reducing hospitalisations and deaths. And the vaccines have a variable level of efficacy against reducing the symptoms of COVID-19. And you know, a year ago, we would have been amazed to see a vaccine on our doorstep already. So this is fantastic news for controlling the pandemic.

Rafael Epstein, ABC Radio Melbourne
How long until we know if it stops people giving the virus to others?

Professor Heidi Drummer, Burnet Institute
At the moment we don’t know if the vaccines generate enough immunity that actually stops the virus from being transmitted. So we know that they reduce the symptoms associated with COVID. But it’s possible that the people who didn’t report symptoms in the trial were still infected, and that they could still pass on the virus to someone else. So I think what’s going to be most instructive here is what’s happening in countries that are using the vaccines at very high rates and then also have higher rates of transmission. So of course, Israel and the United Arab Emirates are really good examples of that. In Israel, they’ve delivered 50.3 doses of vaccine per 100 people so they need to have 80 of the population vaccinated in February and 95 percent in March. So that’s going to be really instructive for understanding how quickly the rate of new infections come down and as a consequence in the rate of hospitalisation and death. But you have to also interpret that in conjunction with all of the public health control measures that are currently happening in that country. So I think we need to see vaccines as another tool in our toolkit along with all the public health measures and restrictions on travel that we currently have.

Rafael Epstein, ABC Radio Melbourne
I mentioned Israel for a few reasons. I mean, because it’s small, and they’ve got a decentralised health system they’re able to vaccinate so many people so quickly. But they also had a terrible experience the last few months have obviously really struggled to get people to follow public health directions. How do I interpret so I see these little studies out of little set pockets of Israel, huge qualifier - vaccines hasn’t been rolled out in the Palestinian territories, but, I see the vaccine being rolled out and I see people rolling out that vaccine say, hey, wow, our transmission rates dropped a lot. That is good. That’s a really good signal, isn’t it?

Professor Heidi Drummer, Burnet Institute
That’s a fantastic signal. And what we’d like to see more examples in various other countries such as the UK, Germany and other countries, the US, that are trying to implement their vaccine programs as quickly as possible and that also are struggling with controlling coronavirus. I think also some modelling might be really instructive here to see how countries that are currently not vaccinating as quickly compared to countries who are vaccinating as quickly. So it’s going to be a big data analysis effort I think to understand how much the vaccines have contributed to reducing those new infections.

Rafael Epstein, ABC Radio Melbourne
The other thing I really don’t understand I read criticisms of either of the way the vaccine is being rolled out. And the people writing those articles say, look, it will affect the mutation of the virus in this way. Is that something I need to pay attention to and to the countries that are rolling out the vaccines in particular ways do they have a choice?

Professor Heidi Drummer, Burnet Institute
Well, no, they don’t have a choice at all at the moment as they need to get this vaccine into as many people as possible as quickly as possible. I think Australia is in a fantastic position here because we have no community transmission. That means we can develop full immunity from the vaccines without ever encountering the virus in that critical period where your immune response is building up to its maximum level after those two vaccinations. So in other countries, though, they’re struggling with really high numbers of deaths so they’re trying to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible. And of course, there are logistical challenges with that because especially with the Pfizer vaccine with the storage requirement, you need to reserve enough doses to have enough vaccines to give people that second dose in the optimal period.

Rafael Epstein, ABC Radio Melbourne
Does it matter which vaccine we get in Australia?

Professor Heidi Drummer, Burnet Institute
Well, I think at the moment, the way it’s panning out is I think any of the vaccines are going to be a fantastic choice for Australians. They all prevent severe COVID. We’ve just recently heard the results from the Novavax vaccine trial. These are interim results that show that their vaccine was 95 percent effective against the circulating virus that was more closely matched to the vaccine itself, and 89 percent effective against the UK variance. So Australia is subscribed to 50 million doses of that vaccine. And that’s going to be another great tool in our toolkit for our vaccine program. So with the variants that are emerging, we’ve now seen that all of the vaccine manufacturers are now starting to produce vaccines, well think about producing vaccines with these new variants to more closely match the vaccine to the circulating viruses of the future. So it’s likely that in the future we’ll be saying vaccines that contain these new variants so that they match the viruses that are circulating at the time.

Rafael Epstein, ABC Radio Melbourne
And how confident can I be of that? I mean, I, to be honest, I forget it. I have to read an article every week just to remind us of how the vaccines work, but they’re adjustable, like as the virus varies, should I be confident that the vaccines can vary with them?

Professor Heidi Drummer, Burnet Institute
Yeah, I mean, I think what’s really amazing with this COVID-19 pandemic is the amazing advances that have happened in vaccine technology. The mRNA vaccines are probably the quickest ones to modify and create new vaccines matching circulating viruses. The viral vectored vaccines are also relatively quick to modify into new strains that are circulating. So that gives us an incredible advantage now that we’ve never had before we can use these new technologies coming into human use. So I think, Moderna, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, will all be ramping up production of new variants of this vaccine in the future so that we can have really good coverage against what’s circulating around the world.

Rafael Epstein, ABC Radio Melbourne
What are you looking for in the next few months? Like what are the news? Or what are the developments you’re keen to find out about in the next few months?

Professor Heidi Drummer, Burnet Institute
Yeah, I’m really keen to find out about the effectiveness of the vaccines. I think that’s a key question. What happens in Israel, the UK, Germany, United States, it’s really going to be instructive to understand how quickly the vaccine can reduce new infections, and hospitalisation and death. I think that’s the number one thing we’re all hanging on the edge of our seat to find out with these vaccines.

Rafael Epstein, ABC Radio Melbourne And so when you mentioned effectiveness, I mean, I read, you know, one vaccines 90 percent effective, you can even see some in the field data to see whether the trial matches the population in the real world. Is that what you mean?

Professor Heidi Drummer, Burnet Institute
No, I mean, whether the vaccines actually prevent transmission correctly, they can actually prevent you infections from occurring in the population.

Rafael Epstein, ABC Radio Melbourne
Fingers crossed, fingers crossed. Thanks so much for joining us. Professor Heidi Drummer, Program Director for Disease Elimination at the Burnet Institute.

Find out more about Heidi’s research and Burnet’s Know-C19 initiative which is part of the global COVID-19 response.

Contact Details

For more information in relation to this news article, please contact:

Professor Heidi E Drummer

Program Director, Disease Elimination; Scientific Director, Burnet Diagnostics Initiative; Head, Global Health Diagnostics Development Laboratory; Co-Head, Drummer/Poumbourios Laboratory

Telephone

+61392822179

Email

[email protected]

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