BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine may protect against coronavirus mutation — study | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 08.01.2021
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BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine may protect against coronavirus mutation — study

The coronavirus variants discovered in the UK and South Africa are not more dangerous, but are much more contagious and could overwhelm hospitals. The BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine may protect against coronavirus mutations.

A micrograph showing cells with coronaviruses

A micrograph showing cells with coronaviruses

The good news first: The COVID-19 vaccine developed by BioNTech and Pfizer  is also expected to protect against mutations of the coronavirus  that have surfaced in the United Kingdom and South Africa,  according to a new laboratory study conducted by researchers at Pfizer and the University of Texas.

In 20 vaccinated participants, the antibodies successfully fought off the mutated virus, at least in the Petri dish. While these are only In Vitro tests under laboratory conditions and the test group is not particularly large, the news is reassuring. 

A madical worker preparing a vaccine.

In laboratory tests, the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine has been shown to be effective against mutated viruses.

Moreover, there is still no evidence that this viral variant would cause more severe forms of COVID-19 or that it is responsible for a higher mortality rate.

Rapid spread becomes a stress test

However, there is also bad news — these viral variants are so contagious that far too many people are likely to become ill at once. The British variant is up to 70% more contagious, this can lead to the collapse of health-care systems already running at full capacity in some countries. In many places there is already a shortage of hospital beds, ventilators and other intensive care equipment.

According to Richard Neher, head of the evolution of viruses and bacteria research group  at the University of Basel, the main threat posed by these mutations is a possible faster spread. "If the variant actually spreads 50-60% faster, that leads to a lot more cases that have to be taken care of by the health care system and, unfortunately, some of them will end up dying. Beyond that, of course, there's a concern it could lead to reinfection and reduce vaccine effectiveness, but I think that's a secondary concern at this point."

Biological data on mutations yet to be evaluated

So far, knowledge of the new mutation comes mainly from epidemiological observations of its rapid spread. However, biological data on the variants have been scarce. The reason for the rapid spread could be a slight change in a site of the spike protein on the virus surface. Most coronavirus vaccines are designed so that the body of the vaccinated person recognizes and combats this spike protein. 

Intesive care unit in the United Kingdom

The UK is preparing for more patients in its intensive care units.

Mutations are not uncommon in viruses; on average, there are two new variants every month.

However, the two variants that are spreading rapidly in the UK and also Denmark (called VOC202012/01, B.1.1.7 or 501Y.V1) and the virus variant B.1.351 or 501Y.V2, which has already accumulated eight different mutations in its genome and is currently spreading mainly in South Africa, are of particular concern.

The respective countries are not to blame for the fact that these variants were found there, they have examined the virus particularly closely and noticed these variants first. In the meantime, these mutations with the complicated names have been detected in many countries, including Germany. 

Do the mutations endanger the vaccines' effectiveness?

Not at present. Howeve, laboratory tests as well as broad-based studies must continue to investigate how the vaccines cope with the mutations that have now become known and also with other variants. Of course, this also begs the question of whether those who have already been vaccinated and those who have already recovered are also protected against the new variants.

If at some point the virus mutates to such an extent that the immune response triggered by the vaccination can no longer neutralize the virus, then the vaccines would have to be adapted.

Such an update is not very difficult with the mRNA vaccines, according to BioNTech-Pfizer, which says the genetic code of the virus contained in the vaccine can be easily changed. But the production and distribution of the adapted vaccine is known to take time and already many vaccination centers are eagerly awaiting deliveries.

What do the mutations mean for patients?

From what we know, it is irrelevant for the infected person which variant he or she has contracted. The mutation has no influence on the course of the disease.

Accordingly, the measures already in place do not need to be tightened further, but rather implemented more consistently, according to Isabella Eckerle, head of the emerging viruses research group in the Department of Infectious Diseases  at the University of Geneva. "We don't have any specific measures tailored to this variant now that are not valid for the other variants as well. The variant transmits in close contact, and any measures that reduce contact between people are effective. Also, any measures that aim to detect and isolate infected people early are effective." 

An empty square in a German town during lockdown.

Tougher anti-coronavirus measures will only have an effect if implemented thoroughly.

A challenge for everyone

Andreas Bergthaler, head of the viral pathogenesis and antiviral immune responses research group  at the Research Institute for Molecular Medicine of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (CeMM), also sees keeping people motivated as the greatest challenge, and this is where politicians are called upon first and foremost.

It is frightening how many people do not want to be vaccinated. Improved communication is needed, he said, so that people do not become numb to the all-dominant topic of coronavirus and are willing to support the measures on their own initiative. 

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