New data shows that the Covid-19 vaccines currently on the market may not be as effective at protecting against new, more contagious strains of the coronavirus, said White House Health Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, on Thursday.
A handful of new strains of the coronavirus have emerged overseas, giving scientists cause for concern. Some variants identified in the UK, South Africa, and Brazil appear to be more transmissible than previous strains, but not necessarily more deadly.
While it’s no surprise that the virus is mutating, researchers are quick to figure out what the changes could mean for recently developed life-saving vaccines and therapeutics for the disease.
Some early insights published on the preprint server bioRxiv, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, suggests that variant 501Y.V2 identified in South Africa may evade the antibodies of some coronavirus treatments and reduce the effectiveness of the currently available line of vaccines.
“In addition, 501Y.V2 shows significant or complete leakage of neutralizing antibodies in COVID-19 convalescent plasma,” wrote researchers at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases in South Africa. Their conclusions, they said, “highlight the prospect of re-infection … and may anticipate decreased effectiveness of current spike-based vaccines.”
Even if the drugs are less effective, they will likely still provide enough protection to make the vaccines worthwhile, Fauci said during a White House news conference.
“We’re following the one in South Africa very closely, which is a little more worrying, but nothing that we don’t think we can handle,” said Fauci.
A decline in the effectiveness of vaccines would be “all the more a reason why we should vaccinate as many people as possible”. Mutations occur when the virus spreads and replicates, which can be suppressed if enough people are vaccinated against the disease to build what is known as herd immunity, he explained.
“Bottom line: We’re very careful. There are alternative plans if we ever need to modify the vaccine. It’s not a very burdensome thing, we can do it given the platforms we have,” said Fauci.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Tuesday while she was believes the vaccines will work Against the mutated variants, they may not be as effective as in clinical trials.
“I am very optimistic about what these variants will look like,” said Walensky in an interview with the JAMA Network. “I might be wrong. We might find variants and variants pop up … where the vaccine is less effective, but I’m still optimistic right now.”
To date, the United States has not detected any cases of Covid-19 with the strain identified in South Africa, Fauci said, although he added that the level of surveillance for the strains is “not what we would have liked”.
Another study by Pfizer and printed in bioRxiv BioNTechThe scientists found that their Covid-19 vaccine was probably just as effective against the mutated, infectious strain discovered in the UK. The US has identified at least 144 cases with this variant so far, according to the latest data from the UK CDC.
The study’s authors warned that the rapid spread of Covid variants around the world required “continuous monitoring of the importance of changes to sustained protection from currently approved vaccines”.
– CNBC’s Reuters and Sam Meredith contributed to this report.