A British minister has raised concerns that COVID-19 vaccines might not work properly against the new and highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus discovered in South Africa.
“The South African variant is worrying the experts because it may be that the vaccine doesn’t respond in the same way or doesn’t work in quite the same way,” Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told the UK’s LBC radio. “This South African variant – this is a very big concern for the scientists.”
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His comments came as the world’s leading vaccine makers are rushing to see if their shots work against new mutations of the novel coronavirus, found in South Africa and the United Kingdom.
British scientists have said the variant found in the UK, which has become dominant in parts of England, still seemed susceptible to vaccines. That variant has also been found in the United States and other countries.
The variant first discovered in South Africa has an additional mutation, named E484K, that has scientists on edge.
According to a laboratory study conducted by the US drugmaker Pfizer, its COVID-19 vaccine, which was made in collaboration with the German BioNTech firm, appeared to work against a key mutation in both variants.
The study, yet to be peer-reviewed, indicated the vaccine was effective in neutralising virus with the so-called N501Y mutation of the spike protein.
Phil Dormitzer, one of Pfizer’s top viral vaccine scientists, said it was “very reassuring finding that at least this mutation, which was one of the ones people are most concerned about, does not seem to be a problem” for the vaccine.
Most of the vaccines being rolled out around the world train the body to recognise the spike protein and fight it. Pfizer teamed with researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston for laboratory tests to see if the mutation affected its vaccine’s ability to do so.
They used blood samples from 20 people who received the vaccine. Antibodies from those vaccine recipients successfully fended off the virus in lab dishes, according to the study, which was posted on Thursday on an online site for researchers.
‘Ongoing monitoring of virus changes’
Viruses constantly undergo minor changes as they spread from person to person.
Scientists have used these slight modifications to track how the coronavirus has moved around the globe since it was first detected in China in December 2019.
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 is next on the list.
He explained that if the virus eventually mutates enough that the vaccine needs adjusting, much like flu shots are adjusted most years, that tweaking the recipe would not be difficult for Pfizer or other vaccine producers.
The vaccine is made with a piece of the virus genetic code, simple to switch, although it is not clear what kind of additional testing regulators would require to make such a change.
Dormitzer said this was only the beginning “of ongoing monitoring of virus changes to see if any of them might impact on vaccine coverage”.
Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert, recently said vaccines are designed to recognise multiple parts of the spike protein, making it unlikely a single mutation could be enough to block them.