- British government officials announced last week that a new coronavirus mutation was discovered in the south of England, where it has been spreading rapidly since September.
- The B.1.1.7 mutation features no less than 17 different genetic changes and is believed to be more infectious than other known coronavirus strains.
- BioNTech, the German company that created Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, said on Tuesday that the drug is “highly likely” to work against the new UK mutation.
The novel coronavirus mutation that created havoc around the world in the past few days is called B.1.1.7, and it might not be such a big threat after all.
Well-known researchers in the field have warned that there’s still a lot we don’t know about the new virus strain. Early evidence suggests the new mutation is more infectious than other known strains but it doesn’t necessarily cause more severe cases of COVID-19. The mutated virus was first observed in September and features a collection of 17 different mutations, including no less than eight on the spike protein that binds to human cells. That virus component is what neutralizing antibodies attack during recovery, but also after vaccination. Experts also said it’s likely that the B.1.1.7 strain will still be targeted by vaccines.
BioNTech, which created the first COVID-19 vaccine to be approved in Western countries, says its drug that is being manufactured and distributed by Pfizer is “highly likely” to work against the new UK strain.
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“We don’t know at the moment if our vaccine is also able to provide protection against this new variant,” BioNTech CEO Uğur Şahin said during a press conference on Tuesday. “But scientifically, it is highly likely that the immune response by this vaccine also can deal with the new virus variants.”
BioNTech partnered with Pfizer to develop and manufacture a COVID-19 vaccine, and the two were the first companies to announce positive Phase 3 trial results in the US. Pfizer and BioNTech obtained emergency authorizations in the UK and US, where vaccinations are now underway. The European Union’s drug regulator issued a similar authorization for the drug on Monday, with vaccinations set to start soon. The drug has been authorized for emergency use in more than 45 countries, per The Guardian.
Şahin said the proteins on the UK coronavirus mutation were 99% the same as the ones on other strains. He said his company had “scientific confidence” that the vaccine will still be effective. “We believe there is no reason to be concerned or worried.”
The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was found to be 95% effective at preventing severe COVID-19, and it’s safe for public use. People immunized with the drug will need to take two shots several weeks apart before developing full immunity. The drug will grant them protection against severe illness, but they can still contract the virus. The neutralizing antibodies and other immune system components would then block the pathogen from reaching the lungs, where the coronavirus can do the most damage.
The scientist also explained that the vaccine could be adjusted for the new variant in six weeks, if that need arises. Regulators might have to approve the changes before the new vaccine variation can be used.
Various governments around the world have already taken steps to reduce the risk of B.1.1.7 outbreaks in their countries after British prime minister Boris Johnson announced on Saturday that the country would have to cancel Christmas festivities because of the new strain. The mutation is 70% more infectious than the previous version, he said, although scientists have called for more data that could definitively prove those findings. Some borders might be closed, but the strain has been spreading in the south of England since September and it has already traveled outside of the country.
Tracking the new coronavirus mutation is necessary to manage the pandemic and ensure more dangerous versions of the virus don’t do more harm. It also helps with vaccine development, as current and future drugs can be adjusted to address the mutations.
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