Vaccines may be less effective against South African coronavirus variant – study

Nilima Marshall, PA Science Reporter
·3-min read

Covid-19 vaccines being rolled out in the UK and around the world may be less effective against a new variant of coronavirus that has emerged in South Africa, scientists have said.

In a new study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, researchers from South Africa also found that the SA variant, known as 501Y.V2, contains mutations that may be resistant to immunity from previous coronavirus infection.

Lawrence Young, a virologist and professor of molecular oncology at Warwick Medical School, who was not involved in the research, said: “This preprint suggests that individuals might be able to get infected with a variant of Sars-Cov-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) even if they have previously had Covid-19.

“It also shows we urgently need to find out if we could see infection with this variant post-vaccination.”

It comes as the UK’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance warned that coronavirus variants are a “real issue of concern”.

Speaking on Sky News on Wednesday, Sir Patrick said there are unanswered questions about variants such as 501Y.V2.

He said laboratory studies suggest “this may be a virus that can escape some of the immune effects of antibodies”, but “we don’t know to what degree”.

Sir Patrick said: “We should get information on clinical effects because vaccinations are occurring in South Africa, they are occurring in Brazil, and they are occurring in other places variants may occur, so we should get some more information on that.

“They are more worrying in the sense they are a little more different in terms of how the immune system may recognise them.

“It is a real issue of concern. It’s something we need to keep an eye on, but we don’t have all the answers yet.

“I would just caution the laboratory studies are not perfect predictors of what happens in the clinic so we need to get clinical data as soon as we can.”

HEALTH Coronavirus
(PA Graphics)

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson has said regulators would be able to swiftly approve new vaccine variants to cope with mutations.

At Prime Minister’s Questions he said: “We have been talking about that with the scientists over the last days and weeks intensively, just in the last few hours.

“We are confident that the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) will be in a position to turn around new applications for new variants of vaccines as may be required to deal with new variants of the virus.”

As part of the study, the researchers analysed the impact of specific mutations in the spike gene of the SA variant.

They found that 501Y.V2 showed “complete escape” from monoclonal antibodies – man-made proteins that act like human antibodies in the immune system.

Similar findings were also observed in samples containing convalescent plasma – antibody-rich plasma of someone who has recovered from coronavirus.

The study authors wrote: “These data highlight the prospect of reinfection with antigenically distinct variants and may foreshadow reduced efficacy of current spike-based vaccines.”

Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, described the findings as “not good news but not unexpected”.

He said: “It’s human nature to enjoy frightening ourselves, but we must not panic.

“The real world human immune response is more than serum-based neutralisation (antibodies).

“Of course, we would rather neutralisation had occurred but this does not mean that the new virus will infect, make ill and spread from those who have already been infected with the original strain.

“What is true for immunity from infection is likely but not certain to be true for immunity from vaccination.

“The vaccines do stimulate very strong responses, immunity is a sliding scale it’s not an on-off switch.”

It comes as another study suggested the Covid-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech appears to protect against the UK variant dubbed B.1.1.7.