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New COVID-19 Variant: Vaccine Makers Optimistic but Experts are Cautious over Unique Mutations
Just when nations worldwide would have anticipated ending the year on a high with the recently approved COVID-19 vaccines, a new fast-spreading coronavirus variant, named B.1.1.7 (VUI-202012/01) has debuted on the world map raising concerns.
B.1.1.7, which emerged in the county of Kent, in the southeast region of the UK and elsewhere in Europe, is raising concerns among people and communities alike over reports of it being highly transmissible, almost 70% more than the original SARS-CoV-2. Scientists studying the B.1.1.7 strain have noted the mutation has only increased in areas where overall COVID-19 incidence was high or on the rise. At present, there is no evidence to suggest the variant is more lethal than the original strain, but studies are underway to confirm it.
Although several countries in Europe and the rest of the world have imposed travel restrictions to the UK, US health officials have decided not to. On Monday, Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said a travel ban “is really a rather dramatic step so, that’s not really in the cards right now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the requirement of testing is something that is being actively considered right now,”
When asked if the new variant is already in the US, he said, “That’s certainly possible I mean, when you have this amount of spread within a place like the UK, that you really need to assume that it’s here already, and certainly is not the dominant strain, but I would not be surprised at all if it is already here,”
B.1.1.7 has acquired 17 mutations, which is quite unusual, given scientists have never seen viruses acquire more than a dozen mutations at once. Researchers believe that the new variant evolved during a long infection in a single patient. It contains key mutations, particularly in the virus receptor domain (spike protein).
“(The variant) might decrease vaccine efficacy from 95% to something like 80% or 85%,” said Trevor Bedford, an Associate Professor in the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “It would be a modest effect, not a dramatic effect,” CNN reported him saying.
From the preliminary genomic characterization, Dr. Bedford identified four different mutations that are particularly striking to him:
- Spike N501Y which alters a key residue responsible for binding to the human ACE2 receptor
- Deletion of spike residues 69 and 70 which may aid antibody escape
- Spike P681H, which is adjacent to the furin cleavage site
- Knockout of accessory gene ORF8
Vaccine Manufacturers Express Optimism
However, vaccine manufactures are confident that their formulations can tackle the new variant. Pfizer, the co-developer of the first COVID-19 vaccine to get approved in the US and UK, pointed out that they knew SARS-CoV-2 is highly likely to have more than one strain because viruses, in general, have high mutation rates. The SARS-CoV-2 virus had been mutating ever since its emergence a year ago. “It has exceptionally high mutation rates” because the enzymes it uses for replication are “prone to errors when making new virus copies,” the company said.
“One of the reasons Pfizer and BioNTech chose to utilize an mRNA platform is because of the potential for the flexibility of the technology in comparison to traditional vaccine technologies,” including the ability to change the RNA sequence in the vaccine, should a strain emerge that’s not covered by the current shot,” Pfizer added.
BioNTech’s CEO Ugur Sahin said that he is confident of his team’s vaccine-BNT162b2 and believes that it will remain effective against the new variant, given B.1.1.7’s proteins are 99% the same as that of the original SARS-CoV-2. However, he noted that further research is necessary, and it will take about 2 weeks to know for certain if BNT162b2 is effective against B.1.1.7.
Pfizer said it is “generating data” on how well blood samples from people immunized with its vaccine “may be able to neutralize the new strain from the U.K.”
In the event the vaccine needs to be adjusted for the new variant, Sahin believes the production work would take about 6 weeks. “The beauty of the messenger mRNA technology is we can directly start to engineer a vaccine that completely mimics this new mutation, and we could manufacture a new vaccine within six weeks,” Sahin told Financial Times.
Moderna too believes in the efficacy of its RNA vaccine, mRNA1273, against the UK variant. “Based on the data to date, we expect that the Moderna vaccine-induced immunity would be protective against the variants recently described in the UK. We will be performing additional tests in the coming weeks to confirm this expectation”, Moderna said in a statement.
“Dr. Moncef Slaoui, head of Operation Warp Speed, also expects Pfizer’s and Moderna’s COVID-19 shots to be effective against the UK variant. The chances of one set of mutations would completely alter the structures found around the spike proteins “are extremely low,” he declared.
By Sangeeta Chakraborty, Ph.D. &
Rajaneesh K. Gopinath, Ph.D.
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