According to scientists, Covid-19 vaccines launched in the UK and around the world may be less effective against a new variant of the coronavirus that has emerged in South Africa.
In a new study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, researchers from South Africa also found that the SA variant known as 501Y.V2 contains mutations that may be resistant to immunity to previous coronavirus infections.
Lawrence Young, virologist and professor of molecular oncology at Warwick Medical School who was not involved in the research, said, “This preprint suggests that people may be infected with a variant of Sars-Cov-2 (the virus that carries the virus infected) can become infected causing Covid-19), even if they previously had Covid-19.
“It also shows that we urgently need to find out if we can see infection with this variant after vaccination.”
British chief advisor Sir Patrick Vallance warned that coronavirus variants were a “real problem”.
Sir Patrick said on Sky News on Wednesday there were unanswered questions about variants like 501Y.V2.
He said laboratory studies suggest that “this may be a virus that can evade some of the immune effects of antibodies,” but “we don’t know to what extent”.
Sir Patrick said, “We should have information about clinical implications because vaccinations are in South Africa, they are in Brazil, and they are in other places where there may be variations. So we should get more information on this.
“They are more worrying in the sense that they differ a little more in how the immune system can recognize them.
“It’s a real problem. It’s something we need to keep track of, but we don’t have all the answers yet.
“I just want to point out that the laboratory studies are not perfect predictors of what is going on in the clinic. So we need to get clinical data as soon as possible.”
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson has stated that regulators could quickly approve new vaccine variants to deal with mutations.
When asked by the Prime Minister, he said: “We have been talking intensely to the scientists about this in the last few days and weeks, only for the last few hours.
“We are confident that the MHRA (Medicines and Health Products Regulatory Agency) will be able to submit new applications for new vaccine variants that may be required to deal with new variants of the virus.”
As part of the study, the researchers analyzed the influence of specific mutations in the spike gene of the SA variant.
They found that 501Y.V2 showed a “complete escape” from monoclonal antibodies – artificial proteins that act like human antibodies in the immune system.
Similar results were seen in samples containing convalescent plasma – antibody-rich plasma from someone who has recovered from coronavirus.
The authors of the study wrote: “These data underscore the prospect of re-infection with antigenically different variants and may indicate a reduced effectiveness of current spike-based vaccines.”
Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, described the results as “not good news, but not unexpected”.
He said, “It is human nature to frighten ourselves, but we must not panic.
“The real human immune response is more than a serum-based neutralization (antibodies).
“Of course we would prefer neutralization to have taken place, but that doesn’t mean the new virus will infect, make sick and spread from those who were already infected with the original strain.
“What is true of immunity to infection is likely, but not certain, of immunity to vaccination.
“The vaccines stimulate very strong responses. Immunity is on a sliding scale, it’s not an on-off switch.”
Another study found that the Covid-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech appears to protect against the British variant B.1.1.7.