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Vaccine Shown Active Against New Covid-19 Variants

mRNA vaccine graphic

Messenger RNA vaccine process. Click on image for full-size view. (BioNTech SE)

8 Jan. 2021. A current Covid-19 vaccine is shown in lab tests to produce antibodies that appear to protect against new mutations found in South Africa and the U.K. Findings from the study by a team from University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and drug maker Pfizer in New York appeared yesterday on the bioRxiv pre-print server, while awaiting peer review.

In recent weeks, two new mutations emerged of the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for Covid-19 infections. one each in the U.K. and South Africa. The variations result from multiple mutations expressed in altered chemistry of a key protein on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 spikes, the target of antibodies produced by current Covid-19 vaccines. In addition, the mutations appear to increase the binding range with angiotensin converting enzyme 2, or ACE2, receptors in host cells, making the variations more easily transmitted than the original SARS-CoV-2 strain.

The UT Medical Branch/Pfizer team notes that the two different variations share a common genetic property, a mutation called N501Y that contributes to making the virus more transmittable. The researchers produced a synthetic analog of the SARS-CoV-2 virus with the N501Y mutation for lab testing.

The researchers tested the synthetic mutated virus against antibodies in blood serum samples produced by individuals receiving the Covid-19 vaccine candidate code-named BNT162b2. Biotechnology company BioNTech SE in Mainz, Germany, first developed BNT162b2 and subsequently licensed it licensed to Pfizer. BNT162b2 contains synthetic messenger RNA delivered in lipid nanoparticles that target the SARS-CoV-2 spike surface proteins. The vaccine is given in two doses, 21 days apart.

Blood serum from 20 clinical trial participants

The team sampled blood serum from 20 participants in a late-stage clinical trial of BNT162b2 provided two to four weeks earlier. The results show antibodies in the serum samples neutralized the N501Y mutation at the same rate as the original virus version. The authors caution that the synthesized analog used in the test does not contain all of the spike mutations from the U.K. and South Africa variations. However, these test results are consistent with another recent study showing similar activity against 15 known variations of the virus at that time.

The BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, now brand-named Comirnaty, received an emergency authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on 11 December 2020, with authorization from the European Commission following on 21 December. BioNTech also announced today that the European Commission is purchasing another 200 million doses of Comirnaty, with an option for 100 million more doses, supplementing the 300 million doses secured last year.

The BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine was not part of the U.S. government’s so-called Operation Warp Speed program providing financial assistance for development and clinical trials. In July 2020, however, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services agreed to buy up to 500 million doses of BNT162b2 for $1.95 billion.

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Disclosure: The author owns shares in Pfizer.

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