The Pfizer- BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine appears to work against a mutation in highly transmissible new variants of coronavirus discovered in the UK and South Africa, according to a study by the drugmaker.
The study by Pfizer and scientists from the University of Texas Medical Branch, yet to be peer reviewed, indicated the vaccine was effective in neutralising virus with the so-called N501Y mutation of the spike protein.
The mutation could be responsible for greater transmissibility and there had been concern it could also make the virus escape antibody neutralisation elicited by the vaccine, said Phil Dormitzer, one of Pfizer’s top viral vaccine scientists.
The study’s findings are limited, because it does not look at the full set of mutations found in either of the new variants of the rapidly spreading virus.
Dormitzer said it was encouraging that the vaccine appears effective against the mutation, as well as 15 other mutations the company has previously tested against.
“So we’ve now tested 16 different mutations, and none of them have really had any significant impact. That’s the good news,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that the 17th won’t.”
Scientists have expressed concern that vaccines being rolled out may not be able to protect against the new variants, particularly the one that emerged in South Africa.
Simon Clarke, an associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, said this week that while both variants had some new features in common, the one found in South Africa “has a number of additional mutations” that included more extensive alterations to the spike protein.
The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and the one from Moderna, which use synthetic messenger RNA technology, can be quickly tweaked to address new mutations of a virus if necessary. Scientists have suggested the changes could be made in as little as six weeks.