New research suggests that Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine may protect against a mutation found in two more easily spread variants of the coronavirus that has broken out in the UK and South Africa.
These variations are a cause for concern worldwide. They carry multiple mutations but share one thing in common that is believed to be more contagious. Called N501Y, it’s a slight change in one part of the spike protein that the virus coats.
Most vaccines introduced worldwide train the body to recognize this spike protein and to fight it. Pfizer worked with researchers from the University of Texas Medical Department at Galveston to run laboratory tests to see if the mutation affected the vaccine’s ability to do so.
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They used blood samples from 20 people who had received the vaccine from Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech during an extensive examination of the recordings. Antibodies from these vaccine recipients successfully repelled the virus in laboratory dishes, according to the study, which was published on an online researcher site late Thursday.
The study is preliminary and has not yet been peer-reviewed, an important step for medical research.
“It was a very comforting finding, however, that at least this mutation that people are most concerned about doesn’t seem to be a problem,” said Pfizer’s chief scientist Dr. Philip Dormitzer.
A similar vaccine from Moderna is launched in the US and Europe and approved in the UK on Friday. Moderna is running similar tests to see if its shot works against the variants, as are manufacturers of other types of COVID-19 vaccines.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading U.S. infectious disease expert, recently told The Associated Press that vaccines are designed to recognize multiple parts of the spike protein, making a single mutation unlikely to be enough to block them . Still, tests are needed to be sure.
Viruses constantly change slightly as they spread from person to person. Scientists have used these minor changes to track how the coronavirus has moved around the globe since it was first discovered in China about a year ago.
British scientists have said that the variant found in the UK – which has become the dominant type in parts of England – still appears to be susceptible to vaccines. This mutant has now been found in the United States and numerous other countries.
But the variant that was first discovered in South Africa has an additional mutation that scientists have on the verge, one called the E484K.
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The Pfizer study found that the vaccine appeared to work against 15 additional possible virus mutations, but E484K was not among those tested. Dormitzer said it was next on the list.
Finally, if the virus mutates so badly that the vaccine needs to be adjusted – much like flu shots do in most years – it wouldn’t be difficult for the shot of his company and the like to tweak the recipe. Both the Pfizer BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are made with a portion of the virus genetic code that is easy to change, although it is not clear what additional test regulators would be required for such a change.
Dormitzer said this was just the beginning of “ongoing monitoring of virus changes to see if any of them could impact vaccine coverage”.