(Citizen Free Press) — As researchers around the world compete to see if new variants of the coronavirus will pose a problem for vaccines, a second study in two days says a variant from South Africa could do just that.
The variant was first detected in South Africa in October and has now been found in more than a dozen countries.
In both studies, the work was done in the laboratory and not in people, so more research is needed to assess the true threat of the new variant.
In the most recent study, which was small, researchers took antibodies from six people who were hospitalized with COVID-19 before the new variant was discovered. They found, to varying degrees, that the antibodies of the six survivors were unable to fully fight the virus.
“I think the evidence is accumulating that these mutations, and I think other mutations, will emerge around the world, and are already emerging, that they are escaping the antibodies of a previous infection,” Alex Sigal, Africa virologist, told Citizen Free Press. Health Research Institute and the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology. “It’s worrying.”
It is unclear if this means that someone would be vulnerable to the new variant if they had already had covid-19, or what this could mean for people who have been vaccinated.
Sigal’s findings were very similar to those of a study published Tuesday by the National Institute of Communicable Diseases in South Africa.
“When you see that two groups independently arrive at the same basic answer, that’s okay, there is more agreement that they are correct,” said Jesse Bloom, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
A third study, also published Tuesday, showed that mutations in the new variant allowed them to evade some of the immunity induced by vaccination, but it was far from a complete escape.
That study looked at far fewer mutations in the variant than the South African studies examined.
None of the studies have been peer-reviewed or published in medical journals.
As scientists determine whether these variants are particularly dangerous, and studies are underway in various laboratories around the world, one thing is clear: get vaccinated if you can.
“I sure would if I could,” Sigal said. “My father-in-law had the opportunity to fly to Israel and get vaccinated, and I was kicking him out of the house because you can’t get it here in South Africa.”
A trio of studies
In his research, Sigal found that the antibodies of the six study subjects failed to fully combat the new variant.
“One participant had a pretty good response, but no one was unscathed,” he said.
The study was published on the KRISP website, the Kwazulu-Natal Research Sequencing and Innovation Platform. The other two studies were published on a prepress server.
In the study that had similar findings, blood was drawn from 44 people in South Africa who had had COVID-19. Nearly all of their cases were confirmed to have occurred before September, which is before the variant was detected in South Africa.
The researchers then tested to see if their antibodies would fight the new variant.
About half of the 44 people, their antibodies were powerless against the new variant. For the other half, the antibody response was weakened, but not completely eliminated.
In the third study, conducted at Rockefeller University, researchers analyzed the blood of 20 people who had received the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine. Different mutations in the viruses allowed some types of the antibodies to escape, but the immune systems of the volunteers released an army of different types of antibodies to the viruses.
The Rockefeller study looked at fewer mutations than the two South African studies. He looked at three key mutations in the spikes at the top of the coronavirus, as that’s the part of the virus targeted by vaccines.
“That’s helpful, but it’s not the full story yet,” said John Moore, a vaccine researcher at Weill Cornell Medicine.
The South African studies, however, used the virus itself, or a model of it, which contained eight spike mutations.
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