Why a Coronavirus Vaccine Might Fail People 50 and Older

Senior getting vaccinated
Photo by wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock.com

People around the world are holding their collective breath, dreaming of the day a vaccine finally brings the coronavirus to its knees.

Unfortunately, the reality is likely to be messier. Experts are divided about how quickly a vaccine might be ready and how effective it will be once it’s released.

In addition, history suggests the vaccine might not work as well in older folks — the people most in need of protection from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Earlier this year, Scientific American noted that the human immune system goes through two significant changes over a lifetime — once shortly after birth, and again when a person reaches old age.

Thus, vaccines that work well for younger people might not be as impactful for those in a later stage of life, whose immune systems are not as efficient.

Recently, AARP sounded a similar alarm. It noted that the 2017­-2018 flu vaccine was 38% effective in the general population, but less than 20% effective in people over 65.

If the coronavirus vaccine follows a similar pattern, it will still be helpful. A vaccine that prevents younger folks from getting sick should also prevent the spread of COVID-19 to those over age 50.

But a vaccine that doesn’t work as well in older adults will leave a lot of people vulnerable to the coronavirus.

AARP notes that a vaccine’s effectiveness depends on the “seroconversion of infection.” This term refers to the body’s production of detectable levels of an antibody.

Paul Duprex, director of the Center for Vaccine Research at the University of Pittsburgh, told AARP that a coronavirus vaccine might get to seroconversion in 50% or less of people:

“If you get just over 50 percent in younger, healthy people, that’s like fighting a battle with one leg. If the vaccine doesn’t work as well in older folks — say, 25 percent — it’s like fighting the battle with one and a half of your legs missing.”

Scientists now have the ability to add extra ingredients to vaccines to make them more effective, AARP notes. In addition, it is possible that multiple vaccines — including versions that work better in seniors — will be developed.

But all of this suggests that people should not put too much faith in a vaccine to keep them safe. Instead, practicing social distancing and other safety protocols — such as wearing a mask — makes sense.

Duprex urges people to take steps — including exercising regularly, eating better and getting plenty of rest — that will fortify their immune systems. That is especially important for anyone over age 60, he says.

Eating better and exercising more are both among the tips we suggest in “7 Ways Your Life Should Change Before the Next Pandemic.”

Duprex also reminds people that any progress related to vaccines should get us closer to the day when the pandemic finally ends. Duprex says:

“Let’s make sure a useful vaccine helps older people, but let’s also quash this thing in younger people so we reduce the overall circulation of the virus. That’s what happened with measles. And measles is the most infectious human virus on the planet.”

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