New research suggests that the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine may protect against a mutation found in the two most contagious variants of the coronavirus that erupted in the UK and South Africa.
The results are reassuring, though preliminary, and not surprising to scientists who did not expect a single mutation to overcome the fires that the world had hoped for. But the study marks only the beginning of continuous monitoring to ensure that all vaccines launched worldwide continue to function as the coronavirus, like all viruses, evolves.
“There is no reason to believe that vaccines will not work as well in these strains,” said Dr. Frederic Bushman of the University of Pennsylvania, who is looking at how the virus moves.
The mutant version circulating in the UK has also been detected in the US and many other countries. This and the variant seen in South Africa is causing global concern, as it seems to be spreading more easily – although it is not yet known how much.
Bushman, who was not involved in the Pfizer study, warned that he only tested a vaccine against a worrying mutation. But the other vaccines now used in the West – Moderna and AstraZeneca – are undergoing similar tests and he said he expects similar discoveries.
This is because all vaccines to date cause recipients’ bodies to produce antibodies against several spots on the top protein that covers the virus.
“A mutation will change a little, but it won’t break everything,” Bushman said.
The new study looked at a change in the spike protein in both variants, called N501Y, which is thought to be responsible for easier transmission. Pfizer teamed up with researchers at the University of Texas at Galveston’s medical branch for laboratory tests to see if that mutation could counteract the vaccine.
They used blood samples from 20 people who received the vaccine, made by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, during an extensive photography process. According to the study, the antibodies from those recipients removed the virus in the laboratory vessels. posted late Thursday on an online site for researchers.
The findings have not yet been reviewed by external experts, a key step for medical research.
But “it was a very reassuring finding that at least this mutation, which was one of the most worrying people, does not seem to be a problem” for the vaccine, said Dr. Philip Dormitzer, Pfizer’s chief scientific officer.
Viruses constantly undergo minor changes as they spread from person to person.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading American infectious disease expert, told the Associated Press this week that coronavirus variants do not appear to block vaccine-induced antibodies, but that testing to be safe is underway in the US and elsewhere.
British scientists also said that the variant found in Britain – which has become the dominant type in parts of England – still seems susceptible to vaccines.
But the variant first discovered in South Africa has an additional mutation that has scientists on the sidelines, one called E484K. The Pfizer study found that the vaccine appears to work against 15 possible additional mutations in the virus, but E484K was not among those tested. Dormitzer said he’s on the list.
South Africa has not started mass vaccinations.
If the virus eventually moves enough that the vaccine needs to be adjusted – just as flu vaccines are adjusted in most years – changing the recipe would not be difficult for vaccines made with newer technologies.
Both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are made with part of the genetic code of the virus, easy to change, although it is not clear what kind of additional testing regulators would require to make such a change.
Dormitzer said this is just the beginning of “continuous monitoring of viral changes to see if any of them could have an impact on vaccine coverage.”
But coronavirus does not change as quickly as other viruses, such as the flu or HIV, and its structure is more stable than that of the flu, Bushman said, although this will need to be monitored.
“I think the vaccination will last longer and be more effective than the flu,” he said.
The Associated Press Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.