SA variant takes on the vaccine race

Written on 02/18/2021
Justin Rowe-Roberts

The South African coronavirus variant is becoming a stumbling block for vaccine producers, with the latest casualty being the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Although lab studies suggest the vaccine can protect people against the concerning new variant of the virus, the studies indicate that it is far less potent against the new variant. Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Novavax studies all produced similar results, with the vaccines efficacy against new variants being muted. This comes after the South African government decided to halt the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which arrived in the country at the beginning of the month. The various vaccines limited efficacy is extremely concerning given the virus’s ability to rapidly mutate, with many reputable scientists convinced that Covid-19 is here to stay. – Justin Rowe-Roberts

By Naomi Kresge and Robert Langreth

(Bloomberg) – Pfizer and BioNTech SE’s Covid-19 vaccine stimulated roughly two-thirds lower levels of neutralising antibodies against the South African variant of the coronavirus in a lab study.

Read also: Over 50% of South Africans likely to have had Covid-19, says Discovery Health

The Pfizer results are part of tests of its vaccine against a lab-created virus that had all the mutations found in the South African variant, which is thought to spread faster than earlier versions. The study released Wednesday showed reduced neutralisation of the South Africa-like virus by blood from people who had been immunised with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The companies expect their vaccine will still work against the variant.

All of the blood samples from vaccinated patients still showed significant levels of neutralising antibody against the South Africa variant, the researchers said. The study was conducted by Pfizer, BioNTech and researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

A separate study by researchers from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Moderna also looked at how the company’s vaccine performed against the South Africa variant in the lab, and found a significant reduction in coronavirus-fighting antibodies. These neutralising antibodies were reduced by a factor of 6.4, compared with levels produced against earlier versions of the virus, when the full group of South Africa mutations were examined.

Read also: Moderna offers Covid-19 vaccines to SA says insider

What the lab data means in practice remains to be seen. “It is unclear what effect a reduction in neutralisation by approximately two-thirds would have” on protection from Covid-19 caused by the South Africa variant, the Pfizer study concluded.

The mutant virus has become a stumbling block for vaccine campaigns, with South Africa halting the rollout of AstraZeneca  shot after a study showed it didn’t work as well in preventing mild illness involving the variant first identified there. AstraZeneca is working to revise its vaccine by fall, while Moderna is working on booster shots.

Pfizer and BioNTech said in a statement that there’s no real-world evidence that the South African variant can elude their shot. Still, they said they’re getting ready to develop an updated vaccine or booster if need be.

The partners said they’re also testing whether the vaccine works against a variant that has emerged in Brazil, as well as against other mutant strains.

Meanwhile, a shot from Johnson & Johnson prevented hospitalisations and deaths from Covid in a large study but was less effective at preventing infections in South Africa than elsewhere. A vaccine developed by Novavax also was less effective in South Africa in a study.