Story at a glance

  • Officials at Pfizer and BioNTech released a statement on Tuesday saying their vaccine candidate is effective against new strains of COVID-19.
  • Countries like the United Kingdom, South Africa and potentially the United States have all seen new variants of the coronavirus in the last few months.

COVID-19 vaccine developers Pfizer and BioNTech issued optimistic news regarding how their vaccine holds up against the new, more contagious coronavirus variant found in the U.K.

Results from an in vitro study suggest that when vaccinated with a dose of the BNT162b2 vaccine, the U.K. COVID-19 strain is neutralized, or rendered inactive by the medicine.

The study, which has been submitted for peer review, specifically focused on the variant’s hallmark changes within the COVID-19 spike protein, making it more transmissible when exposed to human cells. 

It follows previous reports of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine remaining effective against new COVID-19 variants. 

When scientists created a pseudovirus with the U.K. COVID strain’s same mutations to test against the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, they found that the vaccine effectively neutralized the virus pathogens for a prolonged period.

Given the vaccine’s mRNA structure — which teaches the body how to build a protein to stimulate an immune response to a given virus — officials at both companies are optimistic that they will be able to continue to adjust their COVID-19 vaccine to fight multiple virus variations.

“Pfizer and BioNTech are encouraged by these early in vitro study findings. Further data are needed to monitor the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine’s effectiveness in preventing COVID-19 caused by new virus variants,” the press release read. “So far, for COVID-19 vaccines, it has not been established what reduction in neutralization might indicate the need for a vaccine strain change. Should a vaccine strain change be required to address virus variants in the future, the Companies believe that the flexibility of BioNTech’s proprietary mRNA vaccine platform is well suited to enable such adjustment.”

Mutations in the COVID-19 protein have prompted concern that the two approved U.S. vaccines may not work against a new strain of the coronavirus. South Africa has also reported its own virus mutation, which is very similar to the changes in the spike protein found in the U.K. variant.

Earlier this month, researchers in Ohio raised alarms that they had identified a new COVID-19 strain that may be unique to the U.S. — becoming the first American COVID-19 variant. Their findings are under peer review. 

These jarring developments have quickly captured the attention of public health officials, some of whom, like Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Disease, are taking “very seriously.”

“You don’t want people to panic,” Fauci told NBC News on Sunday. “But ... people need to realize, there’s more than one mutant strain. There’s one from the U.K that’s essentially dominated, that’s the one that is actually seen in the United States. There’s another more ominous one in South Africa and Brazil. We’re looking at all of them very, very carefully.”

Published on Jan 20, 2021