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Study: AstraZeneca vaccine may reduce virus transmission

Danica Kirka and Lauran Neergaard
The Associated Press

AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine does more than prevent people from falling seriously ill — it appears to reduce transmission of the virus and offers strong protection for three months on just a single dose, researchers said Wednesday in an encouraging turn in the campaign to suppress the outbreak.

The preliminary findings from Oxford University, a co-developer of the vaccine, could vindicate the British government’s controversial strategy of delaying the second shot for up to 12 weeks so that more people can be quickly given a first dose. Up to now, the recommended time between doses has been four weeks.

The research could also bring scientists closer to an answer to one of the big questions about the vaccination drive: Will the vaccines actually curb the spread of the coronavirus?

It’s not clear what implications, if any, the findings might have for the two other major vaccines being used in the West, Pfizer’s and Moderna’s.

U.S. to go by ‘science’: In the United States, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, dismissed the idea of deliberately delaying second shots, saying the U.S. will “go by the science” and data from the clinical trials. The two doses of the Pifzer and Moderna vaccines are supposed to be given three and four weeks apart.

Still, the research appears to be good news in the desperate effort to arrest the spread of the virus and also suggests a way to ease vaccine shortages and get shots into more arms more quickly.

The makers of all three vaccines have said that their shots proved to be anywhere from 70% to 95% effective in clinical trials in protecting people from illness caused by the virus. But it was unclear whether the vaccines could also suppress transmission of the virus — that is, whether someone inoculated could still acquire the virus without getting sick and spread it to others.

As a result, experts have been saying that even people who have been vaccinated should continue to wear masks and keep their distance from others.

Only the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are being used in the United States. Britain is using both Astra­Zeneca’s and Pfizer’s. AstraZeneca’s has also been authorized by the 27-nation European Union. Pfizer has not endorsed the British government’s decision to lengthen the time between doses.

Study shows transmission cut: Oxford’s study, however, found that the vaccine not only prevented severe disease but appeared to cut transmission of the virus by two-thirds. The study has not been peer-reviewed yet.

Volunteers in the study underwent regular nasal swabs. The level of virus-positive swabs — from both those who had COVID-19 symptoms and those who had none — was 67% lower in the vaccinated group.

“That’s got to have a really beneficial effect on transmission,” Oxford lead researcher Sarah Gilbert said at a meeting of the New York Academy of Sciences.

The researchers also looked at how likely people who have been vaccinated are to get a symptom-free infection. In one subset of volunteers, there were 16 asymptomatic infections among the vaccinated and 31 in an unvaccinated comparison group.

Pfizer and Moderna also are studying the effect of their vaccines on asymptomatic infections.

The pandemic’s worldwide death toll has eclipsed 2.2 million, including about 447,000 in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins University data.

Cases in the U.S.: New cases per day in the U.S. and the number of Americans in the hospital with COVID-19 have dropped sharply in the past few weeks, but deaths are still running at close to all-time highs at an average of about 3,100 a day. Deaths often lag behind the infection curve because it can take weeks to sicken and die from COVID-19.

As the Super Bowl approaches, Fauci is warning people against inviting others over for Super Bowl parties, urging viewers to “just lay low and cool it” to avoid turning Sunday’s big game into a super spreader event.

“You don’t want parties with people that you haven’t had much contact with,” he told NBC’s “Today” show. “You just don’t know if they’re infected.”