In early August, scientists on the front lines of COVID-19 provided an up-to-the-minute briefing on the pandemic. Moderated by Dr. Tom Lynch, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center president and director, the virtual event was conceived and planned in July when the virus was retreating and public health restrictions were easing.
"This virus continues to evolve and bring new risks, and the delta variant is the latest curveball," said Lynch, holder of the Raisbeck Endowed Chair. Instead of the original topic, he led a discussion with the panelists about variants, vaccines, and how to respond to a changing virus that is again disrupting plans to return to workplaces, schools and other activities.
Here are a few of the top messages from the wide-ranging discussion.
- "Delta has changed the pandemic for kids," said Dr. Alpana Waghmare, a pediatrician and researcher. Because it's spreading so quickly through communities, more children are getting sick, she said, but "it's not totally clear yet whether delta actually causes more severe disease in kids than other variants." Studies underway will answer that question within the next few weeks, she said, and clinical trials of vaccines for kids under 12 are moving as quickly as possible.
- Not all cancer patients and survivors mount a robust antibody response to vaccines — but vaccination can still protect them against severe disease by triggering other aspects of the immune system, said Dr. Joshua Hill, a physician-scientist who is leading a national study of vaccines in patients undergoing blood stem cell transplantation and CAR T-cell therapy.
- While healthy people who are fully vaccinated are experiencing more breakthrough infections with the delta variant, "the vaccines are still extremely effective in preventing hospitalization and death," noted Hill.
- Dr. Trevor Bedford, a leading expert on the virus’s evolution, predicts that in the future we'll need annual vaccinations against COVID-19 variants to reduce illness and death, just as we do now for seasonal flu. "The virus won't be an existential threat," he said, "but something that demands a consistent public health resolve to deal with."
- Finally, Waghmare noted, "Change is an inherent part of this pandemic, and we need to keep following the science."
More than 20% of Hutch researchers are working on projects related to COVID-19. They are seeking to understand its spread, develop vaccines and treatments, and uncover how the virus attacks our immune systems.