Rutgers expert: We likely will need COVID-19 vaccines annually

Marlink, head of Rutgers Global Health Institute: ‘We're going to be living with this virus for the rest of our lives’

Everyone knows the COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna require two shots to be effective. Dr. Richard Marlink said what many people don’t understand is this: Vaccination shots may be an annual occurrence.

Marlink, the director of the Rutgers Global Health Institute, does not see the vaccine as a one-and-done deal that essentially eliminates COVID-19 forever — as is the case with vaccines for polio and smallpox.

“We’ll probably have to get revaccinated over and over again for this virus for the rest of our lives,” he said.

Marlink said there are two potential unintended consequences from vaccines: Increased confidence from those who get the shots — and a lack of understanding of how important it is for everyone around the world to do so.

“(Vaccines) are not the total solution,” he said. “You’re not immune to infection, especially as the vaccine wears off.”

Marlink worries that people will say, “I’m OK, I’m vaccinated, my friends are vaccinated, people in my workplace are vaccinated, we’re OK.

“That’s pretty short-sighted.”

Here’s why: Marlink said allowing the virus to continue in other countries will let the pandemic continue. He cited the variant found in the U.K. in recent weeks as not being the first — and certainly not the last time — the virus will evolve. And that was before a Colorado man — who has not traveled — was reported to have the variant.

“The more we let viruses replicate, the more they evolve,” he said. “There’s evidence that the U.S., early on, had genetic mutations that made the virus more infectious from the Washington state outbreak that then spread to the East Coast.”

And getting the world vaccinated will be a challenge, Marlink explained.

“Most developing countries, by definition, don’t have the resources that middle- or higher-income countries have,” he said. “So, resources are always a huge issue. Even if and when donor countries help by giving the vaccines, there’s a readiness issue, especially for developing countries: ‘Are you ready? The vaccine lands at your airport? Are you ready for it?’”

Marlink said recent World Health Organization guidance indicated that developing countries are only ready for about a third of the things they will need to do to distribute the vaccine.

“It doesn’t mean they won’t be able to be ready, it just means that it’s a huge undertaking,” he said.

This is why Marlink thinks the virus may never be eliminated completely.

“They’ll still be cases and still be people dying of COVID-19,” he said. “Even though a majority of us get vaccinated, it’ll just be a different level of infection rates and death rates.”

Marlink feels the COVID-19 vaccine shot eventually may be viewed in the same way as the annual flu vaccine — a vaccine that not everyone chooses to get.

“We sort of say, ‘Oh, that’s the flu,’” he said. “And it varies by year. But that still kills tens of thousands of people each year. And a lot of people don’t get vaccinated. And the vaccines, of course, don’t work as well as 90%.

“We’re going to be living with this virus, in some way, for the rest of our lives.”