A new study offers some reassurance that Pfizer and BionTech’s COVID-19 vaccine is likely to protect patients against two new variants of the COVID-19 virus: one now circulating rapidly in U.K. and the other South Africa.
Since the emergence of these new variants, scientists have expressed confidence that currently authorized vaccines would work against them — but cautioned that more studies were needed to be sure.
Now, in a study that has not yet been peer reviewed, researchers from Pfizer and the University of Texas Medical Branch have found that the vaccine seems to work against one of the mutations that makes the U.K. and South African variants distinct.
Both new variants — the result of random copying errors in the virus’s genetic code — appear to be easier to transmit, but not more deadly. Working in a laboratory, researchers modified a version of the coronavirus to include a specific copying error that’s believed to make the U.K. and South African variants more contagious.
They then tested that modified virus against blood samples from 20 people who volunteered for Pfizer’s clinical trial and received both vaccine doses, finding that the virus-fighting antibodies were still able to “neutralize” the modified virus.
Though their experiment was conducted in a laboratory, it offers promising reassurance that people who are immunized with Pfizer’s vaccine will also likely be protected from the new variants in real life.
However, more research is still needed to examine the vaccine’s effectiveness in the context of the unique suite of mutations found in the U.K. and South African variants — not just the select mutation researchers zeroed in on in their modified virus experiment. And studies are ongoing to confirm that other vaccines — including a vaccine from Moderna, authorized in the United States, and one from AstraZeneca/Oxford, authorized in the UK and India — will also work against the new variants.
But experts say it’s likely many of the vaccines available today will offer some protection against new viral variants because they elicit a multi-pronged defense inside the body’s immune system.
“When you get vaccinated, the immune response that you make is called polyclonal, which means it’s against many different parts of the virus,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, during a Facebook Live event with California Gov. Gavin Newsom last week.
“Even though you have one part of the virus that’s changed, it’s very likely that the other components of the vaccine induced response will protect you,” Fauci said.
But experts also warn the out-of-control spread of COVID-19 means more mutations and more variants are likely to emerge due to an increased likelihood of those random copying errors. Meanwhile, the new U.K. variant has now been detected in at least eight states within the U.S.
“There is a definite concern over the long period,” epidemiologist and ABC News contributor Dr. John Brownstein told ABC News last week. “Over months and years, it could pose a problem with the vaccine … but I think in the coming six months, we’ll be totally fine with the current vaccine.”