Story at a glance

  • Researchers reviewed the positive COVID-19 test results of 800 people — 400 vaccinated and the same number unvaccinated.
  • The South African variant was eight times more likely to show up in the test of a person who received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine.
  • The findings defied researchers initial expectations, although they concluded that given the relatively small sample size more research is needed.

Israeli researchers found in a study released Saturday that the COVID-19 mutation first discovered in South Africa has a greater likelihood of “breaking through” the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine than other prominent variants. 

The study, which was conducted by Tel Aviv University and Clalit, reviewed the test results of 800 people — 400 of whom tested positive for the virus more than 14 days after receiving at least one vaccine dose. The other half was composed of unvaccinated individuals who also tested positive, Reuters reported. Although the South African variant made up around 1 percent of positive COVID-19 tests among the groups, it was eight times more likely to show up in a patient who had received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine. 

The findings defied researchers initial expectations, although they concluded that given the relatively small sample size more research is needed. 

“Based on patterns in the general population, we would have expected just one case of the South African variant, but we saw eight,” Prof. Adi Stern, lead research in the group, told The Times of Israel. “Obviously, this result didn’t make me happy.”

“We can say it’s less effective, but more research is needed to establish exactly how much,” Stern said.


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Ran Balicer, director of research at Clalit, told the Times that this “first in the world” research shows both resilience of the South African variant and need to keep up social distancing and other preventative measures. 

“These preliminary findings necessitates close continued attention to the dissemination of this strain in Israel, emphasizing the need for epidemiological monitoring and systematic sequencing, in order to contain further spread of the South African variant in Israel,” he said.

Pharmaceutical company Moderna’s Chief Medical Officer Tal Zaks said Wednesday that booster shots designed to protect against emerging variants should be ready by the end of 2021. The National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases is working with the company. 

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and White House chief medical advisor, said at the end of March that he is confident the vaccines available to Americans offer sufficient protection against viral mutations. Yet he noted his organization would work with Moderna to evaluate a future need for an updated shot. 

“Preliminary data show that the COVID-19 vaccines currently available in the United States should provide an adequate degree of protection against SARS-CoV-2 variants,” Fauci said in a statement.

“However, out of an abundance of caution, NIAID has continued its partnership with Moderna to evaluate this variant vaccine candidate should there be a need for an updated vaccine,” Fauci said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recorded more than 450 cases of the B.1.351 variant. 


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Published on Apr 12, 2021