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What do we know about how the current vaccines work against the COVID-19 mutation that was first found in the UK?

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The recent variant of COVID-19 called B.1.1.7, first found in the United Kingdom in 2020, has caused many to question whether or not current vaccines will still be effective in preventing the virus from causing a severe infection. The U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases believe that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will provide protection against the variant first found in the UK. If not, mRNA vaccines can be altered in a laboratory by changing the sequence of the genetic code of the vaccine so it matches that of the new variant. Experts at AstraZeneca also believe that a vaccine they created with Oxford University will be effective against this new variant. It's unknown how the remaining COVID-19 vaccines, which have been approved for use in far fewer countries than the mRNA or AstraZeneca vaccines, will protect against vaccine variants. Many scientists remain optimistic that these vaccines will offer some protection against genetic changes.

This article was published on
February 17, 2021

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What our experts say

The recent variant of COVID-19 called B.1.1.7, first found in the United Kingdom in 2020, has caused many to question whether or not current vaccines will still be effective in preventing the virus from causing a severe infection.

The U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases believe that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will provide protection against the variant first found in the UK. If not, mRNA vaccines can be altered in a laboratory by changing the sequence of the genetic code of the vaccine so it matches that of the new variant. Experts at AstraZeneca also believe that a vaccine they created with Oxford University will be effective against this new variant.

It's unknown how the remaining COVID-19 vaccines, which have been approved for use in far fewer countries than the mRNA or AstraZeneca vaccines, will protect against vaccine variants. Many scientists remain optimistic that these vaccines will offer some protection against genetic changes.

Context and background

So far, ten vaccines have been approved for limited or full usage across the world. As these vaccines work in different ways and have different levels of effectiveness, it is difficult to know whether or not all of them are effective against the variant found in the UK that has been spreading throughout the world.

Variants are common with viruses. A virus mutates when a change in its genetic sequence occurs. These changes occur when the virus tries to replicate itself and they can be helpful, hurtful, or not cause much of a change in how the virus evolves. If a virus creates enough mutations to change its biology in a substantial way, it is considered a different strain and may not respond to vaccines as well as the original virus did before it mutated. However, if the main biology of the virus does not change substantially during this process, scientists often describe it by using the term 'variant' instead. The B.1.1.7 variant has 23 mutations, for instance, but the major genetic sequence and biology of the virus has not changed enough to be considered a new strain. 

As new variants like the one found in UK's B.1.1.7 may be more transmissible (they can spread more easily among people), great concern has been placed on how successfully they can protect the immune system. Though some variants were tested during clinical trials for vaccines, there is concern that new variants that emerged after these studies may not be as sensitive to immune system reactions. More studies are being conducted now to determine if currently approved vaccines can offer the same level of protection they did during their clinical trials. Most scientists seem optimistic about these vaccines offering some level of protection against the original virus and its recent variants.

Resources

  1. Covid-19: What new variants are emerging and how are they being investigated? (BMJ)
  2. Vaccine makers in Asia rush to test jabs against fast-spreading COVID variant (Nature)
  3. How Does the Coronavirus Variant Spread? Here’s What Scientists Know (NYT)
  4. Here’s the latest on COVID-19 vaccines (NatGeo)
  5. Weekly epidemiological update - 19 January 2021 (WHO)
  6. COVID-19: What do we know about the new coronavirus variant? (MNT)
  7. The New Mutations (AAAS Science)
  8. Coronavirus Vaccine Tracker (NYT)
  9. Estimated transmissibility and severity of novel SARS-CoV-2 Variant of Concern 202012/01 in England (medRxiv)
  10. Neutralization of N501Y mutant SARS-CoV-2 by BNT162b2 vaccine-elicited sera (bioRxiv)
  11. AstraZeneca says its vaccine should be effective against new coronavirus variant (Reuters)

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