Scientists are hard at work testing out whether mutations found in new variants of the coronavirus could bypass the immunity offered by currently developed vaccines. The first results from this work are encouraging: They suggest that the Pfizer vaccine is still effective against one important mutation found in these variants. However, more research is still needed before we should be completely reassured.
The preliminary results were released this week on the preprint website bioRXiv by a team of scientists from Pfizer and the University of Texas Medical Branch. They collected blood samples from people who had been fully vaccinated and tested them against strains of the virus carrying the N501Y mutation, which has been seen in variants first found in the UK and South Africa and is thought to be one important reason why these strains are more transmissible. Scientists have worried that the mutation could change the structure of the virus enough to allow it to “escape” detection from the immune system of survivors or vaccinated people.
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In the tests, the blood of these patients still proved capable of neutralising the N501Y strain of the virus, performing just as well as against other variants. That indicates that this one mutation alone won’t protect the virus from our existing weapons. The team has also tested other mutations seen in the UK or South Africa variants and found similar results.
“So we’ve now tested 16 different mutations, and none of them have really had any significant impact. That’s the good news,” study author and Pfizer scientist Philip Dormitzer told Reuters Friday. “That doesn’t mean that the 17th won’t.”
Indeed, there hasn’t been research done yet on another troubling mutation seen in the South African variant, called E484K. And while it may be hard for any single mutation to affect vaccine efficacy, experts have warned that multiple mutations in a variant could collectively change it enough to avoid vaccine-provided antibodies, at least partially weakening a vaccine’s effectiveness. In other words, these findings are hopeful, but there’s still a lot of double-checking to be done.
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Dormitzer and his team — and no doubt other scientists — will continue to test the vaccine against new mutations and variants, with data from this research said to be available in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, the real world could provide some useful information in the near future. So far, around 17 million people globally have received at least one dose of a covid-19 vaccine (most require two doses), including 6.25 million Americans. In the midst of a still-raging pandemic, more cases of these variants are being reported around the world. If our vaccines aren’t working as effectively as they’re expected to because of these new versions of the virus, we’ll know soon enough.