New research suggests Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine may protect against a mutation found in two highly contagious variants of the coronavirus that have broken out in Britain and South Africa.
These variations are a source of global concern. They both share a common mutation called N501Y, a slight alteration in a spot in the spike protein that coats the virus. It is believed that this change is the reason why they can spread so easily.
Most of the vaccines being deployed around the world train the body to recognize and fight this spike protein. Pfizer teamed up with researchers in the medical branch of the University of Texas at Galveston for lab tests to see if the mutation was affecting its vaccine’s ability to do so.
They used blood samples from 20 people who received the vaccine, made by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, in a large study of the injections. Antibodies from those vaccinated were able to repel the virus in lab dishes, study finds published Thursday evening on an online site for researchers.
The study is preliminary and has yet to be reviewed by experts, a key milestone for medical research.
But “it was a very reassuring finding that at least this mutation, which was one of the most worrying people, didn’t appear to be a problem” for the vaccine, said Pfizer’s chief scientific officer, the Dr Philip Dormitzer.
Viruses constantly undergo minor changes as they spread from person to person. Scientists have used these slight changes to track how the coronavirus has moved around the world since it was first detected in China about a year ago.
British scientists said the variant found in the UK – which has become the dominant type in parts of England – still appears to be susceptible to vaccines. This mutant has now been found in the United States and many other countries.
But the variant first discovered in South Africa has an additional mutation that scientists are on the lookout for, the one named E484K.
The Pfizer study found that the vaccine appeared to work against 15 possible additional viral mutations, but E484K was not among those tested. Dormitzer said he was next on the list.
Dr Anthony Fauci, America’s leading infectious disease specialist, recently said that vaccines are designed to recognize multiple parts of the spike protein, making it unlikely that a single mutation could be enough to block them. But scientists around the world are researching different vaccines to find out.
Dormitzer said if the virus eventually mutates enough that the vaccine needs to be adjusted – just as flu shots are adjusted most years – it wouldn’t be difficult to change the recipe for his company’s vaccines and the like. The vaccine is made with a piece of the virus’s genetic code that is simple to change, although it is not clear what kind of regulation further testing would be needed to effect such a change.
Dormitzer said this was just the start of “continuous monitoring for viral changes to see if any of them could impact vaccine coverage.
The Associated Press’s Department of Health and Science receives support from the Department of Science Education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.