South Africa is ramping up efforts to secure Covid-19 vaccines, but the question remains whether they’ll be effective against new variants of the virus. We take a look at what the experts have to say.
New variants of Covid-19 (SARS-CoV-2) have emerged in South Africa (501Y.V2), Brazil (P1) and the United Kingdom (B.1.1.7). As a result many people are questioning whether the numerous Covid-19 vaccines that were developed over the last year will be effective against the new variants. It would appear that all of the new variants have been mutations of the virus that attack what makes Covid-19 the most dangerous – the spike protein, which is the part of the virus that latches on to human cells.
These mutations, E484K and N501Y target the spike protein, but this is something that vaccines have specifically targeted in the first place.
“The variants do have changes in the [virus’s] spike protein, but not enough to make the vaccine not protective,” said Arnold Monto, the acting chair of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Vaccine and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee, in a January 11 interview with the medical journal JAMA. “It looks like [existing vaccines] should work, and we’ll know more definitively in the next couple of weeks.”
Vaccines generate a broad spectrum of antibodies in response to vaccines or natural infection and these antibodies will be targeting several parts of the spike protein and therefore single mutations are not going to effectively battle off the antibodies that vaccines provide.
“If there is a mutation that destroys one of the antibody binding regions, in that scenario it will decrease that specific antibody’s binding activity, but there are many, many other antibodies that are not binding to that spot,” says Pei-Yong Shi, a virologist and microbiologist at University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, according to National Geographic.
At least for now, the common consensus is that we should be battling to secure vaccines and for everyone to get out there and get a vaccine as soon as you can.
“I’ve got my vaccine, and I know basically every single scientist and physician I work with is getting the vaccine,” Helen Chu, an immunologist at the University of Washington in Seattle says. “I would definitely not pause based on the fact that there are new variants emerging.”
Furthermore, the establishment of herd immunity, the ultimate goal of vaccinations, is the most effective way to prevent further mutations of the virus.
“We have not seen any evidence yet that the new variants are not going to be covered by the vaccine, and, in fact, the way you stop new variants is to contain the virus,” says Philip Dormitzer, chief scientific officer of viral vaccines at Pfizer’s vaccine research division. “The less replication of the virus there is in the world, the fewer variants that are going to get generated.”