WATCH: Evolving science on Covid-19 and the vaccines

As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, there is more controversy than clarity when it comes to issues like lockdowns, vaccines, immunity and origin. What do we really know, and what is still a mystery? Today, we cut through rumor and misreporting in a special interview at the key military research lab for fighting infectious diseases in Ft. Detrick, Maryland.

This is the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, the Army’s main facility for research involving biological warfare and pandemic threats. Here in lab AA2B is a special vial it contains the very first U.S. sample of Covid-19 collected one year ago this week from a man who’d travelled from Wuhan, China to Washington State.

Dr. John Dye: So this is the original islet that every laboratory was using and has been using for all of the vaccines and therapeutics work.

John Dye is the Chief of Viral Immunology here and it’s nine months after our first visit with him near the start of the pandemic.

Sharyl: What have we learned in the time period since my last visit here?

Dye: So, it’s interesting because right now there’s a lot of talk about the different variants of the virus. And that’s not a surprise to me, viruses are evolving animals in a way. They are constantly changing, they are evolving as we evolve.

Sharyl: A lot of people talk about there’s a different strain. You explained to me before that sometimes that’s misuse of the term strain. It’s more of a variant, can you explain what’s going on and the difference?

Dye: Sure, a different strain, It’s virology speak, so I don’t want to get into that too much, but there has to be a certain amount of genetic diversity between one isolate and another isolate to say these are distinct “strains” of a virus. The number of changes that is occurring between one person X and person Y and person Z and person XX is not different enough to actually classify these as different “strains.” Now, that’s a good thing. When you talk about different strains, you have a better chance of having a vaccine or a treatment not work because it’s more divergent. The closer we are if we narrow our window, and this is what we have, a more narrow window, we have a more likely chance of being able to protect against this particular isolate, this particular variant and the other variants that come out.

Sharyl: So, it’s not necessarily more alarming that we’re seeing this United Kingdom variant identified in the United States?

Dye: It was a matter of time before it got here.

Sharyl: What surprises have come up, at least for you, in this time period?

Dye: The thing that surprised me is how quickly this has spread globally. The transmissibility of this virus is not something that I think has been seen before. The lethality is not as bad as it could be, and it’s not as bad as it has been in the past for others. And I think the medical doctors are getting better at treating the symptoms of COVID as we move forward, they’ve done a fantastic job.

Sharyl: When you say this is like something we haven’t seen, I think nobody in their lifetime has seen anything like this.

Dye: Not in our lifetime.

Sharyl: This raises the question that hasn’t been answered as far as I know: Did it come from the Wuhan lab or does it appear as though there was a man-made component, maybe part of something that was being used in experiment? Or have we ruled that out?

Dye: No, at this point, nothing has been ruled out. We do not know. It is undetermined whether it was from a laboratory or from an environmental exposure, at this point in time, and we probably never will know.

Sharyl: Why is that?

Dye: Well, it’s hard to say. To actually determine whether that virus came from a laboratory or came from the wild, you would have to look for genetic signatures of that particular virus, and to do that, you would have to have the earliest passages or earliest versions of that virus. What we need is a snapshot at the beginning, and we don’t have that and I don’t know if we ever will.

Sharyl: It’s my understanding that, that we asked, of course, early on, we asked China and the Wuhan lab to give us samples so that we could make these comparisons. And it’s my understanding we never got that.

Dye: I am not familiar. I do not know if we received those or not.

Sharyl: When we say a vaccine, at this stage, is 90 to 95% effective, some people may take that to mean, for the rest of your life or for the next 10 years. Right now, vaccines are proven to last a period of a few months, is that accurate?

Dye: That is accurate at this point. Not every human being is the same. Some people may need a booster shot after six months, whereas other people, depending on their immunity, may not need it for a year or two.

Sharyl: What happens in the time period between the first and the second dose?

Dye: Ah, great question. That initial dose is going to give your body your first initial taste of the virus, just in that little glycoprotein, the spike protein. And then you get more of that with the boost, and then you would get even more of that if you actually became infected with the virus.

Sharyl: So in the in-between time, your immunity is building, but you shouldn’t consider yourself as safe as after the second dose?

Dye: That’s exactly right. They’ve done studies in animals and they’ve looked at humans as well, where you’re building that immunity over time, you’re generating those memory cells, and then at 21 [days] for the Pfizer vaccine and 28 [days] for the Moderna vaccine, you get that second boost. You then are boosting those memory cells you generated 21 or 28 days prior, to then have them expand again and produce even more, so then you’re building that immunity.

Sharyl: Why are the first two vaccines that need that boost 21 or 28 days later, but there are some vaccines that we’re told will not, you could just have a single dose?

Dye: Right. All the vaccines are similar in some ways, but different in others. The Pfizer and the Moderna vaccine are an RNA vaccine. And in principle, an RNA vaccine, in the past, the duration of that immune response and how quickly you develop that immunity, is somewhat limited, which is why you need that additional boost. Some of the other vaccines, like the J&J vaccine, the Novavax vaccine and others, AstraZeneca, they have a different modality of getting the protein into your system, where you don’t need that additional boost because it drives the immunity internally. So, each vaccine has a different profile for how many times you need to see it, in order to maximally develop that immunity. Now, my guess is that, those other vaccines, you eventually will need a boost because your immunity will wane over time, and then you come in, you boost it, and then it pops back up again.

Sharyl: I looked at some studies and some data from China that I don’t know if we can believe, but it was published in a U.S. journal, that actually show it’s a very tiny percentage, actually fraction of 1% of the population exposed or in a general area, that gets coronavirus over a period of time. What’s the latest of what we know about how many people would get it?

Dye: We don’t know, that’s the bottom line. The idea is, and this is the concept of herd immunity, which a lot of people have been hearing about, which is that if you layer in a vaccination on top of the natural infection, you’re going to get a certain amount of the population that’s immune, so that that virus doesn’t have a place to go and play. It doesn’t have a place to go and replicate and generate more, and then spread to other people.

Sharyl: Is it possible that people in some cases are fighting off Coronavirus and have been exposed that don’t have the antibodies in their system when they measure for it, so they don’t know?

Dye: Yes, it is possible because if your innate immune system, let’s say you’re one of those individuals, lucky enough individuals, that you just fight it off with no problem. You don’t even know that you had it. It’s possible that your innate immune system is so high, that you’re able to control that virus before you even get a chance to develop a large number of B cells, which produce those antibodies. So it may be below the detectable limits of the test that you’re providing. And that’s a good thing.

Sharyl (on-camera): Next week, we will have more with Dr. Dye including some fascinating treatments that seem to be working for coronavirus.

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