The variant was first spotted in South Africa in October and has now been found in more than a dozen countries.
In both studies, the work was done in the lab and not in humans, so more research is needed to assess the true threat of the new variant.
“I think the evidence shows that these mutations – and I think other mutations – will emerge across the world – and are already emerging – that escape antibodies from a previous infection,” Alex Sigal, virologist at Africa Health Research Institute and the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, told CNN. “It’s worrying.
It is not known if this means that a person would be vulnerable to the new variant if they had previously had Covid-19, or what that might mean for people who have been vaccinated.
“When you see two groups independently coming up with the same basic answer, that’s good – it sounds more than they are correct,” said Jesse Bloom, virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
This study looked at significantly fewer mutations in the variant than the South African studies reviewed.
None of the studies have been peer reviewed or published in medical journals.
As scientists determine if these variants are particularly dangerous – and studies are underway in several labs around the world – one thing is clear: Get vaccinated if you can.
“I would get it for sure if I could,” Sigal said. “My stepfather had the opportunity to fly to Israel and get it, and I was chasing him out of the house because you can’t get him here in South Africa.”
A trio of studies
In his research, Sigal found that the antibodies of the six subjects in the study had failed to fully combat the new variant.
“One participant got a pretty good response, but no one escaped unharmed,” he said.
The study was published on the website of KRISP, the Kwazulu-Natal innovation and research sequencing platform. The other two studies were published on a pre-print server.
In the study which had similar results, blood was drawn from 44 people in South Africa who had had Covid-19. Almost all of their cases have been confirmed to have occurred before September, which is before the variant was spotted in South Africa.
The researchers then investigated whether their antibodies would help fight the new variant.
For about half of the 44 people, their antibodies were powerless against the new variant. For the other half, the antibody response was weakened, but not completely eliminated.
In the third study, performed at Rockefeller University, researchers looked at the blood of 20 people who had received the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine. Different mutations in viruses allowed some to escape certain types of antibodies, but the volunteers’ immune systems launched an army of different types of antibodies on the viruses.
The Rockefeller study looked at fewer mutations than the two South African studies. He looked at three key mutations on the spikes that sit at the top of the coronavirus, since that’s the part of the virus that vaccines target.
“It’s helpful, but it’s still not the full story,” said John Moore, vaccine researcher at Weill Cornell Medicine.
The South African studies, however, used the virus itself, or a model of it, which contained eight cutting edge mutations.