A new—and reportedly more transmissible—COVID-19 variant was identified in the U.K. last month, and another similar strain was found in South Africa. But a new study suggests the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is likely to still be effective against those variants, just as experts predicted.
It’s not unusual for a virus to mutate, but the new COVID-19 variants share at least one mutation that may be concerning. The mutation, called N501Y, specifically affects the spike protein on the surface of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. That spike protein is what the virus uses to bind to and actually enter human cells, causing an infection. And the N501Y mutation can make it easier for the protein to bind to those cells, possibly also making it more likely for a COVID-19 variant with that mutation to actually cause an infection.
For the study, which was published on bioRxiv before being peer reviewed, the researchers first engineered a version of the virus containing the N501Y mutation. Then they tested how well antibody-containing blood samples from 20 people who had previously received the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine would fight off both versions of the virus. Looking at the blood samples, the researchers concluded that the vaccine was able to neutralize both versions of the virus equally.
That is a very welcome bit of good news considering that the U.K. variant has already been detected in Colorado and New York, and experts have said it may become the dominant strain in the U.S.
“Very reassuring data,” Kizzmekia Corbett, Ph.D., an immunologist whose work has been instrumental in developing Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, said of the study on Twitter. “Some good news,” Leana Wen, M.D., an emergency physician and visiting professor at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, said on Twitter. “[The] key is to have genomic surveillance to catch variants early & to contain pandemic to reduce further mutations.”
But N50Y1 isn’t the only worrying mutation these variants have. The U.K. variant, called B.1.1.7., has at least two other mutations that could make it more transmissible, SELF reported previously. One of them, called 69-70del, affects the amount of amino acids that make up the spike protein and may make it easier for the virus to evade the body’s natural immune response. The other, referred to as P681H, is located near a part of the virus that researchers have identified as being crucial for it to replicate effectively.
This information, along with data showing that just over 60% of new COVID-19 cases in London in early December 2020 were of the B.1.1.7. variety, suggests that the strain may be easier to pass from one person to another than previous versions.
However, it’s important to remember that we’re still learning about the new variants and it’s not clear how much more transmissible or dangerous they are than previous strains of the virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says. “Currently, there is no evidence that these variants cause more severe illness or increased risk of death. New information about the virologic, epidemiologic, and clinical characteristics of these variants is rapidly emerging.”
Along with face masks, hand washing, and social distancing, the two vaccines we currently have available for emergency use will be a major tool as the pandemic continues. And as our understanding of the virus and these new variants of it continue to evolve, this new study is certainly reassuring.
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