Despite fears that coronavirus mutations will render Covid-19 vaccines ineffective, a new research shows that the Pfizer vaccine is effective against a key mutation in the two fast-spreading variants.
The South Africa variant known as 501.V2, and the UK one- B117 seemingly have similar characteristics, where both seem to spread faster than the original virus.
From research, they both have the same mutation, called N501Y, on the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, which it uses to invade human cells.
The research by the University of Texas Medical Branch and Pfizer showed that the immune systems of vaccinated patients were able to prevent infection by not only the original virus but also the new mutation.
The scientists tested whether the mutations were defused in blood samples taken from 20 people previously inoculated with Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
The research, which is yet to be peer-reviewed and published on bioRxiv, showed that "no reduction in neutralisation activity against the virus bearing the new mutation.”
“This indicates that the key N501Y mutation, which is found in the emerging UK and South Africa variants, does not create resistance to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine induced immune responses,” the companies said in a press statement.
Researchers are, however, looking into other mutations which could affect the effectiveness of the vaccine, said Phil Dormitzer, Pfizer’s vice president.
There are another seven, out of 23, mutations in the UK variant, whose combined effect could work against the vaccines, researchers have said.
BioNTech's chief strategy officer and managing director Ryan Richardson, however, said the vaccine can be modified in case the virus mutates to the extent that it is rendered ineffective. According to him, there is a risk that future variants could challenge the effectiveness of the vaccine. But there are efforts to prevent such, he said.
Since the vaccine is mRNA based, researchers would just switch the genetic used to code the spike protein in the vaccine to include the new mutations.
The UK variant was first reported in September 2020 and has since spread in 45 countries. The variant is estimated to be 30 to 50 per cent more transmissible compared to other forms of the virus, a new study shows.
Speaking last week, Kenya’s Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe said the new variants have not been identified in Kenya.
However, experts believe the variants are already here, or it is just a matter of time, given that the government has not restricted international movement.
“The rapidly spreading mutant strain is most likely in Kenya already as it has been found in countries like UK and South Africa, which have regular connections with Kenya,” said Dr Ahmed Kalebi, a pathologist, and the CEO Lancet Group of Laboratories.
Moderna and AstraZeneca, which have also received authorisation for emergency use of their vaccines, are also undertaking similar experiment.
The Kenyan government is considering procuring Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine for its citizens, besides other vaccines which have been given authorisation.