5 New Things We Learned About COVID-19 In August 2021

Which vaccine produces the most antibodies? Is the delta variant really more dangerous? Here's the latest.
A new model published in August suggests three-quarters of elementary school kids could get COVID-19 this fall with no precautions in place.
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A new model published in August suggests three-quarters of elementary school kids could get COVID-19 this fall with no precautions in place.

What we know about COVID-19 seems to change by the minute.

It’s understandable, given the massive scale of the pandemic. Right now, more than 217 million cases have been confirmed around the world. And even though we are 18 months into the pandemic, the virus and ways to address it are still relatively new to the medical world, so researchers are learning as they go.

The amount of information out there about the coronavirus is dizzying. It’s hard to keep track of what’s known, what’s a myth and what guidance we should follow. That’s why we’ve rounded up five of the most important new things we learned about COVID-19 in August:

1. The Biden administration is recommending booster shots starting this fall.

Experts have debated if COVID-19 booster shots would be necessary (and when) for months. In August, the Biden administration offered its answer, recommending that Pfizer and Moderna booster shots be available to all Americans eight months after their last shot. The rollout starts later this month.

That initial recommendation did not include the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but the company has since said its booster provides a “rapid and robust” increase in antibodies and will offer guidance in the coming weeks for those who got the one-dose jab.

The Biden administration’s recommendation does not mean that boosters have been — or necessarily will be — approved. The Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are currently weighing the evidence. Some medical experts, including the World Health Organization, have been vocal in their opposition.

There are still questions about when, exactly, immunity begins to wane. And some experts believe the focus on boosters detracts from the real problem: Getting everyone who is still unvaccinated a shot in the first place.

2. The Moderna vaccine makes twice as many antibodies as the Pfizer vaccine.

A study published in late August in JAMA found that Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine generated twice the antibodies of the Pfizer vaccine. Researchers compared antibody levels among fully vaccinated health care workers in Belgium 6 to 10 weeks after they were vaccinated, and it’s really the first study to directly compare the two mRNA vaccines in that way.

Still, it’s far too soon to say what the medical significance of those findings might be. Antibodies are not the only factor to determine what kind of immune response the body mounts post-vaccination. The shots also create T-cells, which are really the body’s main line of defense against the virus. (They’re also much more difficult to measure.)

And ultimately, both vaccines have been shown to produce high levels of antibodies and be extremely effective at preventing serious illness and death from the coronavirus.

Still, experts are looking into whether extending the amount of time between the two Pfizer doses leads to a more robust antibody response, even if the second shot is just pushed back a week.

3. 75% of elementary school kids could get COVID-19 this fall if no precautions are taken.

Parents around the country are sending children back into classrooms as the delta variant surges and fights over mask mandates have become deeply politicized. But health groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics have been unwavering in their support of universal masking.

And an alarming new model published in August shows just how dire the situation could become if schools do not take precautions like requiring children to mask up. It suggests that 75% of all elementary school students will be infected with COVID-19 within the first three months of schools reopening if no preventive measures are taken.

However, universal masking would reduce infections by 26% to 78% (based on what else is happening in the community). And adding biweekly testing would reduce infections by another 50%, according to the model.

“To prevent new infections in the community, limit school absences, and maintain in-person learning, interventions such as masking and testing must be implemented widely,” the researchers write, “especially among elementary school settings in which children are not yet eligible for the vaccine.”

4. The delta variant may double hospitalization risk.

A new study out of England found that people infected with the delta variant from March to May were twice as likely as those infected with the alpha variant to be hospitalized. Its authors say it is the largest study on the risk of hospitalization associated with delta to date. It certainly suggests that delta is not simply more contagious; it makes people sicker, too.

Because the study was conducted in the spring while coronavirus vaccines were still rolling out, about three-quarters of the patients in the study were not fully vaccinated, so it’s unclear how that might impact the findings. Other preliminary studies have found that the vaccines hold up very well against delta, and continue to offer over 90% protection against hospitalization.

Still, the new study is more evidence of the need to take delta seriously and to continue to vaccinate people as soon as possible.

5. Breastfeeding women who’ve been fully vaccinated could help protect their babies.

Despite the fact that groups like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have, for months now, recommended that women who are pregnant or breastfeeding get vaccinated, immunization rates among that group remain low. So experts are hoping that research ― like a new study published in August that found significant antibodies in the breast milk of fully vaccinated women ― might prompt those who are on the fence to consider rolling up their sleeves.

Although the new study was small and still preliminary, it joins a growing body of research suggesting that pregnant women who get the COVID-19 vaccine can help protect their babies from infection.

Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.