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What is needed in Covid-19 vaccine for the elderly

CAPE TOWN – Covid-19 poses a greater risk to the elderly with fears of the vaccine less effective for the age group, scientists hopeful that anti-ageing medication may boost the vaccine in older people.

As the human body ages the immune system deteriorates losing its vigour over time, this is known as immunosenescence, which explains why older age groups suffer the most from Covid-19 infections and also leaves their bodies prone to infections and illnesses.

Scientists have found immunosenescence a worrying factor in the health of the elderly as this may implicate the effectiveness of the Covid-19 vaccine in older people – who needs it the most – as vaccines incite the immune system to fight off invaders.

The effectiveness of the Covid-19 vaccine needs to protect at least half of the vaccinated individuals in order to be effective, according to the US Food and Drug Administration, but the main concern lies in how effective it may be in older adults with slower immune response times with Matt Kaeberlein, a gerontologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, saying, “No vaccine is going to be as effective in the elderly as it is in young people. That’s an almost certainty.”

Credit: Nature.com

Although many scientists are looking at tweaking the immune system in the elderly, many experts have started to look at vaccines for flu which two are aimed to vaccinate people over the ago of 65 which helps stage a response of the immune system. The one vaccine called Fluzone High-Dose contains around four times the normal amount of flue antigens and the second, called Fluad, focuses on an adjuvant, an immune-boosting molecule.

But Claire Chougnet, an immunologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Ohio, believes that medication to improve the function of the immune system may be a smarter route and as the developments of vaccines may be time-intensive and costly, she said to nature, “In the case of an emerging virus, when you want a quick response, that makes things even more complicated if you have to do two types of vaccine.”

Two types of vaccines and individual vaccines focused on specific pathogens may take too long and that aiming to provide immune-boosting medication within vaccines may be the answer according to Chougnet, who adds, “That could work for flu, that could work for COVID-19. That would work for COVID-25,” saying the approach could be “extremely versatile”.

But, in general, developing medications to improve immune function seems like a much smarter strategy than creating vaccines specifically for elderly people, says Claire Chougnet, an immunologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Ohio, who is studying inflammation in aged mice. Vaccine development is costly and time-intensive. “In the case of an emerging virus, when you want a quick response, that makes things even more complicated if you have to do two types of vaccine,” she says. Plus, individual vaccines target specific pathogens, but an immune-boosting medication could be used with any vaccine. “That could work for flu, that could work for COVID-19. That would work for COVID-25,” she says. The approach is “extremely versatile”.

Eric Verdin, president and chief executive of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato, California, agrees that supporting the ageing immune systems in the elderly should be a priority, saying, “I think the net result of all this will be renewed interest in understanding the defect in the immune response in the elderly.” With the aged immune system leaving the old-age vulnerable to infections, illnesses and other viruses, “COVID-19 has brought to the front something that a lot of people have ignored.”

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