One objection to dose-stretching policies, such as delaying the second dose or using half-doses, is that this might increase the risk of mutation. While possible, some immunologists and evolution experts are now arguing that dose-stretching will probably reduce mutation risk which is what Tyler and I concluded. Here’s Tyler:
One counter argument is that letting “half-vaccinated” people walk around will induce additional virus mutations. Florian Kramer raises this issue, as do a number of others.
Maybe, but again I wish to see your expected value calculations. And in doing these calculations, keep the following points in mind:
a. It is hard to find vaccines where there is a recommendation of “must give the second dose within 21 days” — are there any?
b. The 21-day (or 28-day) interval between doses was chosen to accelerate the completion of the trial, not because it has magical medical properties.
c. Way back when people were thrilled at the idea of Covid vaccines with possible 60% efficacy, few if any painted that scenario as a nightmare of mutations and otherwise giant monster swarms.
d. You get feedback along the way, including from the UK: “If it turns out that immunity wanes quickly with 1 dose, switch policies!” It is easy enough to apply serological testing to a control group to learn along the way. Yes I know this means egg on the face for public health types and the regulators.
e. Under the status quo, with basically p = 1 we have seen two mutations — the English and the South African — from currently unvaccinated populations. Those mutations are here, and they are likely to overwhelm U.S. health care systems within two months. That not only increases the need for a speedy response, it also indicates the chance of regular mutations from the currently “totally unvaccinated” population is really quite high and the results are really quite dire! If you are so worried about hypothetical mutations from the “half vaccinated” we do need a numerical, expected value calculation comparing it to something we already know has happened and may happen yet again. When doing your comparison, the hurdle you will have to clear here is very high.
Now here are evolutionary theorists, immunologists and viral experts Sarah Cobey, Daniel B. Larremore, Yonatan H. Grad, and Marc Lipsitch in an excellent paper that first reviews the case for first doses first and then addresses the escape argument. They make several interrelated arguments that a one-dose strategy will reduce transmission, reduce prevalence, and reduce severity and that all of these effects reduce mutation risk.
The arguments above suggest that, thanks to at least some effect on transmission from one dose, widespread use of a single dose of mRNA vaccines will likely reduce infection prevalence…
The reduced transmission and lower prevalence have several effects that individually and together tend to reduce the probability that variants with a fitness advantage such as immune escape will arise and spread (Wen, Malani, and Cobey 2020). The first is that with fewer infected hosts, there are fewer opportunities for new mutations to arise—reducing available genetic variation on which selection can act. Although substitutions that reduce antibody binding were documented before vaccine rollout and are thus relatively common, adaptive evolution is facilitated by the appearance of mutations and other rearrangements that increase the fitness benefit of other mutations (Gong, Suchard, and Bloom 2013; N. C. Wu et al. 2013; Starr and Thornton 2016). The global population size of SARS-CoV-2 is enormous, but the space of possible mutations is larger, and lowering prevalence helps constrain this exploration. Other benefits arise when a small fraction of hosts drives most transmission and the effective reproductive number is low. Selection operates less effectively under these conditions: beneficial mutations will more often be lost by chance, and variants with beneficial mutations are less certain to rise to high frequencies in the population (Desai, Fisher, and Murray 2007; Patwa and Wahl 2008; Otto and Whitlock 1997; Desai and Fisher 2007; Kimura 1957). More research is clearly needed to understand the precise impact of vaccination on SARS-CoV-2 evolution, but multiple lines of evidence suggest that vaccination strategies that reduce prevalence would reduce rather than accelerate the rate of adaptation, including antigenic evolution, and thus incidence over the long term.
In evaluating the potential impact of expanded coverage from dose sparing on the transmission of escape variants, it is necessary to compare the alternative scenario, where fewer individuals are vaccinated (but a larger proportion receive two doses) and more people recover from natural infection. Immunity developing during the course of natural infection, and the immune response that inhibits repeat infection, also impose selection pressure. Although natural infection involves immune responses to a broader set of antibody and T cell targets compared to vaccination, antibodies to the spike protein are likely a major component of protection after either kind of exposure (Addetia et al. 2020; Zost et al. 2020; Steffen et al. 2020), and genetic variants that escape polyclonal sera after natural infection have already been identified (Weisblum et al. 2020; Andreano et al. 2020). Studies comparing the effectiveness of past infection and vaccination on protection and transmission are ongoing. If protective immunity, and specifically protection against transmission, from natural infection is weaker than that from one dose of vaccination, the rate of spread of escape variants in individuals with infection-induced immunity could be higher than in those with vaccine-induced immunity. In this case, an additional advantage of increasing coverage through dose sparing might be a reduction in the selective pressure from infection-induced immunity.
…In the simplest terms, the concern that dose-sparing strategies will enhance the spread of immune escape mutants postulates that individuals with a single dose of vaccine are those with the intermediate, “just right” level of immunity, more likely to evolve escape variants than those with zero or two doses (Bieniasz 2021; Saad-Roy et al. 2021)….There is no particular reason to believe this is the case. Strong immune responses arising from past infection or vaccination will clearly inhibit viral replication, preventing infection and thus within-host adaptation…. Past work on influenza has found no evidence of selection for escape variants during infection in vaccinated hosts (Debbink et al. 2017). Instead, evidence suggests that it is immunocompromised hosts with prolonged influenza infections and high viral loads whose viral populations show high diversity and potentially adaptation (Xue et al. 2017, 2018), a phenomenon also seen with SARS-CoV-2 (Choi et al. 2020; Kemp et al. 2020; Ko et al. 2021). It seems likely, given its impact on disease, that vaccination could shorten such infections, and there is limited evidence already that vaccination reduces the amount of virus present in those who do become infected post-vaccination (Levine-Tiefenbrun et al. 2021).
I also very much agree with these more general points:
The pandemic forces difficult choices under scientific uncertainty. There is a risk that appeals to improve the scientific basis of decision-making will inadvertently equate the absence of precise information about a particular scenario with complete ignorance, and thereby dismiss decades of accumulated and relevant scientific knowledge. Concerns about vaccine-induced evolution are often associated with worry about departing from the precise dosing intervals used in clinical trials. Although other intervals were investigated in earlier immunogenicity studies, for mRNA vaccines, these intervals were partly chosen for speed and have not been completely optimized. They are not the only information on immune responses. Indeed, arguments that vaccine efficacy below 95% would be unacceptable under dose sparing of mRNA vaccines imply that campaigns with the other vaccines estimated to have a lower efficacy pose similar problems. Yet few would advocate these vaccines should be withheld in the thick of a pandemic, or roll outs slowed to increase the number of doses that can be given to a smaller group of people. We urge careful consideration of scientific evidence to minimize lives lost.