Pfizer vaccine 'can protect against UK Covid variant', study suggests

8 January 2021, 07:36 | Updated: 8 January 2021, 07:41

The Pfizer vaccine appears to be effective against the UK's Covid variant, the study suggests
The Pfizer vaccine appears to be effective against the UK's Covid variant, the study suggests. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine can protect against a mutation found in the two Covid variants first seen in the UK and South Africa, new research suggests.

Early studies revealed that antibodies from the shots successfully kept the new, more transmissive coronavirus strains at bay in lab dish samples.

Pfizer worked with researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch to test the efficacy of the jab against the mutation.

The group used blood samples from 20 people who have been vaccinated and found the recipients did still successfully fend off Covid-19.

Both variants - which share a common mutation called N501Y, a slight alteration on one spot of the spike protein that coats the virus - have caused international concern, with many countries barring international travel from Britain and South Africa.

The results of the study were posted late on Thursday on an online site for researchers. However, they are preliminary and have not yet been peer-reviewed.

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Nonetheless, Pfizer's chief scientific officer Dr Philip Dormitzer said the findings were "very reassuring" and that the mutation "does not seem to be a problem” for the firm's drug.

Viruses constantly adapt as they spread from person to person and scientists use these minor changes to track how Covid moves around the globe since first being detected in China about a year ago.

British researchers have said the variant found in the UK - which has become the dominant type in parts of England and has now been found in many other countries - still seemed to be susceptible to vaccines.

However, the variant first discovered in South Africa has an additional mutation that scientists are still concerned about, one named E484K.

The Pfizer study found that the vaccine appeared to work against 15 additional possible virus mutations, but E484K was not among those tested. However, Dr Dormitzer said it is next on the list.

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Dr Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert, recently said vaccines are designed to recognize multiple parts of the spike protein, making it unlikely a single mutation could be enough to block them.

If the virus eventually mutates enough that the vaccine needs adjusting – much like flu shots are adjusted most years – tweaking the recipe would not be difficult for his company’s shot and similar ones, Dr Dormitzer said.

The vaccine is made with a piece of the virus genetic code, simple to switch, although it is not clear what kind of additional testing regulators would require to make such a change.

Dr Dormitzer said this was only the beginning “of ongoing monitoring of virus changes to see if any of them might impact on vaccine coverage”.

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