New COVID-19 variants: Will the vaccines still work?
Mutations to the coronavirus have led to several new strains being identified in the UK. Here's what we know about what this means for COVID-19 vaccines.
As new COVID-19 strains are identified, questions are raised about the effectiveness of the coronavirus vaccines currently being rolled out in the UK.
The UK coronavirus variant, known as B.1.1.7, is thought to have first emerged in September 2020, but quickly became the dominant strain within England. This variant is thought to be more infectious. It has also been referred to as the Kent variant, as this is the county where cases of the strain first began to spike.
Meanwhile, a new strain that emerged in South Africa, known as 501Y.V2, has been spreading within the UK after being identified in December.
There have also been two new variants identified in Brazil, the more concerning of which has been identified in Japan. While this more dangerous strain has not been found in the UK, the other variant has been detected.
Here's what we currently know:
Will vaccines work against the UK coronavirus variant?
The COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech appears to protect against B.1.1.7, according to results of a new study which has not yet been peer-reviewed. This means that other scientists will need to review the data to weed out errors, misinterpretation or flawed research methods.
For the study, researchers from BioNTech collected blood samples from 16 people who had received the Pfizer vaccine in previous clinical trials. They found that a lab-made version of the virus – with all the mutations resembling the B.1.1.7 variant – was neutralised by the volunteer's immune system.
Dr Simon Clarke, an associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, described the recent research as “positive”, but warned the research does not take into account the effect mutations may have on T-cell immunity – which are also key players in the immune response to viral infection.
Will vaccines protect against the South African variant?
A study from Pfizer earlier this month showed the vaccine to be effective against a key mutation called N501Y, which is present in both the UK variant and the new strain that has emerged in South Africa.
However, a study – which has not yet been peer-reviewed – found that the South African variant contains mutations that may be resistant to immunity from previous coronavirus infection. It is not yet known if this means it could be resistant to vaccines.
“What is true for immunity from infection is likely but not certain to be true for immunity from vaccination," explains Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute. “The vaccines do stimulate very strong responses – immunity is a sliding scale, it’s not an on-off switch.”
Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford, who was involved in development of the Oxford vaccine with AstraZeneca, said those who are producing vaccines were responding to these new variants.
Bell told Times Radio that it was “relatively straightforward” to produce a new vaccine at this stage, adding: “So I think it’s important that people don’t get too anxious about it.”
Currently, the South African variant is 'unlikely' to bypass the protection provided by vaccines, but further mutations could make it resistant.
Do we know if vaccines will work on the Brazil variants?
Although there have been some indications that vaccines will work, experts say it is still too early to be sure if they will be effective against the new Brazilian variants.
Scientists have seen three key mutations in the spike receptor binding domain (RBD) on the variant identified in Manaus, north Brazil. These mutations largely mirror some of those that experts are worried about in the South African variant.
What happens if the current vaccines do not work against new strains?
While some of the new coronavirus variants may be able to “get round” vaccines, Sir Patrick Vallance has said it is “quite easy” to make adjustments to deal with this.
“It is possible that the variants will get round vaccines to some extent in the future and some of them that are out there in the world now may well have more of an effect to bypass some of the existing immune system that has come up in response to a vaccine or previous infection," said Vallance in a Downing Street conference.
“The new types of vaccine, particularly the messenger RNA vaccines, are really quite easy to adjust to changes in the virus. And that is a big change in vaccine technology, it’s a very important advance.
“It’s essentially days to make a new starting point, weeks probably to get to a new vaccine if it’s needed, provided the regulators are happy with the approach.”
During the news briefing, Vallance said he expected the vaccines to reduce virus transmission but stressed that “we shouldn’t go mad” while jabs are rolled out.
“It would be very surprising for vaccines that are this effective not to have a decent effect on transmission,” he told reporters.
“I don’t think it will be complete suppression of transmission, I think there will still be transmission.
“It is important to remember. It means just because you’ve been vaccinated doesn’t mean you can’t catch this and pass it on, it means you’re protected against severe disease. And therefore we shouldn’t go mad when people start getting vaccinated and assume that everything is OK and you can’t pass it on, you can’t catch it or give it to somebody else. That still will be the case.
“So we’ve got to be cautious as we go through this but I expect the vaccines to have an effect on transmission reduction.”
Amy is the Editorial Assistant at BBC Science Focus. Her BA degree specialised in science publishing and she has been working as a journalist since graduating in 2018. In 2020, Amy was named Editorial Assistant of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors. She looks after all things books, culture and media. Her interests range from natural history and wildlife, to women in STEM and accessibility tech.