New research from the University of Texas and U.S. drugmaker Pfizer suggests that the company’s Covid-19 vaccine, developed with Germany’s BioNTech, is still effective against the new highly-contagious coronavirus variants spreading rapidly through South Africa and the U.K., which have already been found in several U.S. states, as the U.S. records its deadliest day in the pandemic with 4,085 deaths on Thursday, according to Johns Hopkins University.
The research, which has not been peer reviewed, used blood samples from 20 vaccine recipients to test whether the vaccine is likely to work against 16 different mutations of the virus, including the N501Y mutation to the coronavirus’ spike protein, found in both the U.K. and South Africa variants.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report at least 52 cases of the U.K. variant in the U.S. so far, where over 21 million people have contracted the virus and 365,346 people died since the pandemic began.
Vaccination efforts are lagging, however, and only around 6 million Americans have received their first shot of a Covid-19 vaccine, a long way off President Donald Trump’s promise of vaccinating 20 million people by the end of 2020.
This does not mean the vaccine will be effective against other mutations, including the worrying E484K mutation found in the South African variant, which was not tested against.
“So we’ve now tested 16 different mutations, and none of them have really had any significant impact,” said Phil Dormitzer, one of Pfizer’s viral scientists who worked on the project.
“That’s the good news,” he said, but “that doesn’t mean that the 17th won’t.”
Pfizer’s paper is short, preliminary and limited in scope. It has also not been peer reviewed, which is a research process of independent evaluation to ensure accuracy and rigor. Professor Ravi Gupta, a microbiology professor at the University of Cambridge, said the paper “would not pass peer review in its current form” and “should be ignored.” Gupta said the paper was “misleading for a number of reasons,” only looking at one of eight mutations in the U.K. variant and not providing crucial details on how the experiments were conducted and their results.
Mutations are natural, normal and very common, especially in viruses that have only been spreading through a population for a short time. Many mutations will have no effect whatsoever on the virus’s behavior but some can confer changes, such as greater transmissibility, inducing more serious illness or allowing it to better evade the body’s immune system. Scientists anticipate these mutations; it’s why flu shots are needed on an annual basis rather than once in a lifetime. For those developing vaccines, it’s important to keep an eye on mutants in areas of the virus that are used to train the immune system. For Covid-19, this is often the virus’ spike protein, which it uses to enter cells and spread. The variants currently driving a wave of Covid-19 cases in South Africa and the U.K. appear to be significantly more infectious than other variants circulating, which make outbreaks much harder to contain. Many countries around the world are closing their borders to travel from affected places in a bid to stop its spread.
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW
This study only assesses the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Even if it is known to work, that does not mean others in use still will. Manufacturers such as Moderna are confident that their vaccines remain effective against the mutated virus and are testing them to make sure.
56%. Studies indicate that the U.K. variant is 56% more contagious than other variants spreading.
Amid difficulties rolling out vaccines to member nations, the European Union recently doubled its order of the Pfizer-BioNTech. The bloc is now set to receive 600 million doses of the vaccine or enough to vaccinate 300 million people.