Vaccine New Variant

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New variant may be ‘vaccine-resistant in half of cases’ – but there’s no need to panic…

Research published by the NICD has described the new variant of COVID-19 found in SA as ‘problematic’ – but any setback to the vaccine can be handled.

Vaccine New Variant

Photo: Unsplash

A domestic research team – led by Professor Penny Moore – has conducted a study that doesn’t bode so well for health authorities in South Africa. The new variant, which emerged on our shores, has ripped through the country. A handful of other nations are also trying to contain the more ‘transmissible’ 501Y.V2 strain, and it poses a challenge for the vaccine.

Is the new variant vaccine-resistant?

Jabs from AstraZeneca are set to come online at the end of the month, as South Africa rushes to immunise its frontline healthcare workers. The manufacturers behind this particular shot are still researching how the new variant responds to their current vaccine formula, whereas Moderna – a provider that won’t service SA – isn’t unduly worried about the mutation.

The research presented by Moore – a virologist at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) – has found that the new variant ‘simply is not recognised’ in roughly 50% of cases. When testing for an immune response, antibodies in the blood failed to detect the virus in its latest form…

“When you test the blood of people infected in the first wave and you ask – ‘Do those antibodies in that blood recognise the new virus?’ – you find that almost 50% of cases, or nearly half of cases, there’s no longer any recognition of the new variant. In the other half of those individuals, however, there is some recognition that remains.

“I should add those are normally people who were incredibly ill, hospitalised, and mounted a very robust response to the virus. It is clear we have a problem. If you have very high antibodies to begin with, there does remain some recognition of the new virus and that’s important as we think about vaccines.”

“Some vaccines elicit very high levels of antibodies and others do not, so we need to understand whether there is some recognition by vaccine-elicited, rather than infection-elicited, antibodies.”

Professor Penny Moore

Experts say there’s ‘no need to freak out’

It is essential we take these developments into context, however: Viruses do mutate all the time, and if 50% of those tested in the study aren’t triggering an immune response, it means that 50% are. One source of encouragement is that the sicker you get the first time around, the more likely you are to develop the antibodies to eliminate the virus once more.

If those worst affected by COVID-19 are showing signs of being able to overcome the new variant, then it’s a positive we have to take alongside the negative. What is more, the process to ‘change and adapt vaccines’ to handle a different strain of the same virus is a relatively fast process, taking weeks rather than months.

Perhaps these developments are a tad disappointing – but they don’t facilitate the need to panic. Research published by the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory has found that the immune response to the new variant was only ‘reduced slightly’ – but did occur in almost everyone tested. He claims this is ‘nothing to freak out over’.

“These vaccines elicit neutralizing antibodies and appear to be safe and effective. Activity against SARS-CoV-2 variants encoding E484K or 501Y.V2 or the K417N: E484K: N501Y combination was reduced [only] by a small margin. The decrease is seen in just about every individual tested. But it’s not something that we should be horribly freaked out about.”

Dr. Nussenzweig