Dybul issued the warning during a Nov. 17 conference held in Washington, D.C. and said that the variant would likely be discovered by March 2022. "The probability of us seeing a vaccine-resistant strain is very high."
"Sadly, every prediction I've made has pretty much come true. I hope I'm wrong this time, but I think by March, April [or] May, we will have a fully vaccine-resistant variant. There's simply no way you can have such low rates of vaccination around the world with a virus jumping between vaccinated and unvaccinated people."
Dybul claimed that increasing vaccination rates and administering booster shots could prevent this fully-resistant vaccine strain from developing. "The faster we get boosted, the better off we'll be for the next couple of months."
He suggested three possible scenarios regarding the future of the COVID-19 pandemic.
First, he said that COVID-19 variants may gain mutations that make them resistant to any and all therapies and vaccines. While this may take two years for it to happen, Dybul clarified that this outcome is highly unlikely. (Related: Booster shots can create VACCINE-RESISTANT variants of the coronavirus, scientists warn.)
Second, he said that the current pandemic could "peter out" like the 1918 Spanish influenza outbreak. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 50 million people around the world – with about 675,000 in the U.S. – died of the Spanish flu.
Third, he said that current advancements in therapies and medications in wealthier nations will prevent transmission. Dybul cited the medications made by Pfizer and Merck specifically for COVID-19. However, he mentioned that variants will still pop up in less developed nations and spread "like influenza" in those areas.
"We'll have [yearly] or twice-a-year therapies, vaccination's prophylactic treatments and we'll be fine. We'll have some people dying and getting sick, but we'll be fine," the immunologist added.
Different COVID-19 variants have manifested resistance against current vaccines and therapeutics. The B16172 delta variant, which is the dominant strain in the U.S., displays mutations that reduce the effectiveness of available vaccines. First discovered in India, the delta strain is 60 percent more transmissible than the British B117 variant.
The Colombian B1621 variant is another strain that shows capability to bypass vaccines. Public Health England said in an Aug. 6 report that the variant may evade both vaccine-induced immunity and natural immunity. "Laboratory findings for [B1621] are so far similar to the [South African B1351] beta [variant], which raises the possibility that it may manifest similar immune escape properties."
A further mutation of the delta variant, known as the AY1 delta plus variant, has been found to resist monoclonal antibody therapies used to treat COVID-19 patients. Experts have said that the strain's K417N mutation, which allows the virus to enter and infect human cells, is responsible for this ability to bypass treatment.
"One important point to consider regarding the AY1 strain is the evidence suggesting its resistance to [the] monoclonal antibodies casirivimab and imdevimab," Indian scientist Dr. Vinod Scaria said.
Nevertheless, a group of researchers argued that vaccinated people are actually responsible for the rise of new strains that resist the shots. Using statistical modeling, they examined how the virus mutates and bypass vaccine-induced immunity. They published their findings in Scientific Reports back in July 2021.
The study authors found three primary risk factors that facilitated the rise of vaccine resistant strains. These are a high probability of the resistant strain's initial emergence, a high number of infected individuals and low vaccination rates.
"The highest risk of resistant strain establishment occurs when a large fraction of the population has already been vaccinated, but the transmission is not controlled," they wrote. (Related: Vaccinated people causing vaccine-resistant coronavirus strains to emerge: Study.)
Pandemic.news has more articles about the potential rise of vaccine-resistant SARS-CoV-2 variants.