The emergence of a new coronavirus variant is raising alarm around the world, but some experts are saying they expect that the vaccines that have been rolled out with so much hope in recent days will still be effective.
“Here is the context: you are going to read and hear about a million and one variant viruses, because viruses mutate by nature. It’s scary, I know,” said Kizzmekia Corbett, a National Institutes of Health scientist who helped lead a team of scientists in developing the vaccine being produced by Cambridge-based Moderna.
“As the virus transmits it learns how to be better at transmitting. This is why you hear “circulating faster than last variant,’” she said in a series of tweets.
But she advised people not to panic. She said it will “take a large amount of genetic diversity to completely make the current vaccines useless... And, here is why: Unlike monoclonal antibody therapies, vaccines (especially those using the whole spike protein) make polyclonal antibody responses. This means that the antibodies your vaccinated body will make will be able to bind the coronavirus spike in multiple places... not just one.”
“In all, please don’t be alarmed any more than you have been through this pandemic,” she continued.
Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, told The New York Times, “No one should worry that there is going to be a single catastrophic mutation that suddenly renders all immunity and antibodies useless.”
“It is going to be a process that occurs over the time scale of multiple years and requires the accumulation of multiple viral mutations,” he added. “It’s not going to be like an on-off switch.”
The chief executive of BioNTech, the German company that worked with Pfizer on the other major vaccine approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, said Monday he also expected that the companies’ vaccine would protect against the new variant, according to the Reuters news service
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said at a news conference Saturday, “While we’re fairly certain the variant is transmitted more quickly, there’s no evidence to suggest it is more lethal or causes more severe illness. Equally, there’s no evidence to suggest the vaccine will be any less effective against the new variant.”
Kristian Andersen, an infectious disease expert at Scripps Research Institute, sounded a note of caution about the vaccine’s efficacy, telling STAT, “We shouldn’t just trust our priors that would be like, ‘No, the virus wouldn’t evolve this immune evasion.”
Caitlin Rivers, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said there will be “lots of careful work to determine whether performance of vaccines, therapeutics or tests will be impacted or whether the variant is more likely (or less likely!) to cause severe illness. Early evidence is reassuring on those questions, but it’s early days and more study is underway.”
She noted, however, that “even if we get the all clear on those fronts, increased transmissibility could add strain to our already burdened healthcare systems. ... This situation is one to watch.”
Dr. Muge Cevik, an expert on infectious diseases and virology at the University of St. Andrews School of Medicine in Scotland, said in a tweet that there was still a “lot of work to be done,” including “lab experiments, contact tracing studies & genomic surveillance.”
In the meantime, officials said, people can avoid catching the new variant using methods everyone already has heard about.
“The way to control this virus is the same, whatever the variant,” a British government website said. “It will not spread if we avoid close contact with others. Wash your hands, wear a mask, keep your distance from others, and reduce your social contacts.”
Martin Finucane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.