As of August 2021, the Department of Disease Control, Ministry of Public Health, Thailand, has implemented policies designating the first vaccine dose to be the CoronaVac vaccine and the second dose to be the AZD1222 vaccine, with more than 200,000 individuals getting vaccinated under this policy. The reasons are the shortage of AZD1222 and the decreased effectiveness of the two-dose CoronaVac vaccine against the variants of concern that are circulating in Thailand.
Our study enrolled recipients who had received heterologous prime/booster inactivated COVID-19 vaccine and adenoviral-vectored vaccine and sought antibody testing following vaccination, and they were compared with homologous vaccine recipients. Our immunogenicity data has shown that RBD-specific IgG was detected in 100% of heterologous CoronaVac/AZD1222 recipients after the second dose, with a higher GMT than those elicited by the two-dose CoronaVac and AZD1222 vaccines. In addition, the CoronaVac/AZD1222 vaccine recipients had higher amounts of neutralizing activities against the original Wuhan and the B.1.351 strain than did the recipients of two-dose CoronaVac and AZD1222. Although the extent of the efficacy of the heterologous regimen has not been studied, the comparatively high level of immunogenicity compared to the homologous AZD1222 regimen supports its use as an alternative schedule, with the added benefit of a shorter waiting period between doses.
Researchers are investigating to determine the immune correlates of protection to use as surrogate endpoints for vaccine efficacy. In a recent preprint, protection against SARS-CoV-2 challenge in vaccinated non-human primates strongly correlated with levels of anti-S antibody binding and neutralizing activity10. Because of its ability to elicit a high RBD-specific IgG and neutralizing activity following two-dose vaccination, a heterologous prime/booster regimen with CoronaVac/AZD1222 may provide more protection than the homologous CoronaVac regimen. Regarding the reactogenicity of the heterologous regimen, 1,100 individuals received the heterologous CoronaVac/AZD1222 as reported by Ministry of Public Health, Thailand, between March and July, 2021. However, this retrospective study has not noted any subsequent serious adverse events reported in the National Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System11.
Several SARS-CoV-2 variants such as B.1.351 and B.1.671.2 have demonstrated their ability to evade vaccine-induced immunity12. A recent study has shown that two doses of AZD1222 had an efficacy of 10.4% against the B.1.35113. Our study showed that although there was a reduction in neutralizing activities of sera against B.1.1.7 (1.25 times) and B.1.351 (1.5 times) from the original Wuhan strain in heterologous CoronaVac/AZD1222 vaccinees, neutralizing activities were higher than in the homologous CoronaVac/CoronaVac counterparts. This result implied an additional benefit against variants of concern in the heterologous CoronaVac/AZD1222 regimen.
The high immunogenicity profile of the heterologous prime/booster regimen in this study is congruent with conclusions of the Com-COV study, which also found an increase in anti-spike RBD-specific IgG and neutralizing titers compared to the heterologous regimen1. In the Com-COV study, the researchers investigated combinations of the Pfizer mRNA vaccine (BNT162b2) and the AZD1222 vaccines available in the United Kingdom. Two-dose AZD1222 administered 6 weeks apart elicited a lower immune response than when given 10–12 weeks apart. The underlying mechanism is likely due to the host anti-adenoviral antibodies elicited by the first vaccination preventing the virus in the second vaccine dose to enter the cells when the second dose is given sooner than 10–12 weeks. Nevertheless, the Pfizer mRNA vaccine (BNT162b2) given as a second dose in AZD1222-primed individuals has been shown to induce a higher response than that of the AZD1222 given as a second dose. Heterologous vaccination regimens have been previously examined with experimental vaccines for HIV14, malaria15, and Ebola16, a precedent for this regimen’s efficacy; however, the mechanism for increased immunogenicity from mixing CoronaVac/AZD1222 has yet to be elucidated.
There are a few noteworthy limitations to the current study. Because our study participants were recruited in a real-world setting before the Ministry of Public Health launched the vaccine recommendation, the schedule of heterologous vaccination did not follow the recently released guideline stating that two doses should be given 28 days apart. In this study, approximately 80.5% of individuals received the first and second dose of the heterologous regimen at an interval between 14 and 35 days. Secondly, the timing of collecting blood samples after the second dose in the heterologous vaccine group was not the same as for the homologous vaccine group. This caveat has not statistically affected the conclusion but nonetheless should be considered. Third, the age demographic disparity was present between different vaccination regimen groups. The inherent nature of Thailand’s vaccination policy, which prioritizes vaccination with the AZD1222 vaccine in elderly people, consequently led to a higher average age for the homologous AZD1222 regimen cohort. The increased average age in the homologous AZD1222 regimen cohort can lead to a lower immune response as also demonstrated in a study of immunogenicity of an RNA vaccine17. The age-related lower immune response is likely due to the “immunosenescence” phenomenon as a result of increases in terminally differentiated memory cell populations, lymph node fibrosis, and altered cytokine production among the elderly18. Lastly, cell-mediated immunity was not explored in this study.
In conclusion, a heterologous prime/booster regimen demonstrated a strong immune response. Further studies are underway to determine the reactogenicity and immunogenicity of a heterologous prime/booster regimen in clinical trials against other SARS-CoV-2 variants. With an acceptable immunogenicity profile, here is the first report to show that a heterologous prime/booster regimen with CoronaVac/AZD1222 would provide greater flexibility for countries experiencing supply difficulties and individuals with adverse events following the first dose CoronaVac vaccination.