Current COVID-19 vaccines and antibodies may not beat new variants

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In a new study, researchers examined the U.K. and South Africa variants of SARS-CoV-2 and predicted that current vaccines and certain monoclonal antibodies may be less effective at neutralizing these variants.

In addition, the new variants raise the specter that reinfections could be more likely.

The research was conducted by a team at Columbia University and elsewhere.

The study and the new clinical trial data show that the virus is traveling in a direction that is causing it to escape from our current vaccines and therapies that are directed against the viral spike.

The team says if the rampant spread of the virus continues and more critical mutations accumulate, then scientists may be condemned to chasing after the evolving SARS-CoV-2 continually, as they have long done for the influenza virus.

Such considerations require that researchers stop virus transmission as quickly as is feasible, by redoubling our mitigation measures and by expediting vaccine rollout.

After vaccination, the immune system responds and makes antibodies that can neutralize the virus.

The team found that antibodies in blood samples taken from people inoculated with the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine were less effective at neutralizing the two variants, B.1.1.7, which emerged last September in England, and B.1.351, which emerged from South Africa in late 2020.

Against the U.K. variant, neutralization dropped by roughly 2-fold, but against the South Africa variant, neutralization dropped by 6.5- to 8.5-fold.

Data from the study about the loss in neutralizing activity against the South Africa variant are more worrisome.

The researchers did not examine the more recent variant found in Brazil (B.1.1.28) but given the similar spike mutations between the Brazil and South Africa variants, the team says the Brazil variant should behave similarly to the South Africa variant.

The study also found that certain monoclonal antibodies used now to treat COVID patients may not work against the South Africa variant.

And based on results with plasma from COVID patients who were infected earlier in the pandemic, the B.1.351 variant from South Africa has the potential to cause reinfection.

One author of the study is David Ho, MD.

The study is published in Nature.

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