U.S. drugmaker Moderna is attempting to allay fears about a new variant of SARS-CoV-2 spreading rapidly through Europe, saying that it has “confidence” that its vaccine will still be effective against the new strain. “Based on the data to date, Moderna expects that the vaccine-induced immunity from the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine would be protective against the variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus recently described in the UK,” the statement, released Wednesday evening, reads.
The press release comes one day after BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin shared a similar sentiment during a meeting with reporters, saying he feels sure that the vaccine his company created with Pfizer will successfully block the new variant. “Scientifically, it is highly likely that the immune response by this vaccine also can deal with the new virus variants,” Sahin said.
The variant, known as “B117,” is believed to be 70 percent more contagious than the current strain circulating in the U.S., and may be responsible for as many as 60 percent of cases in London. Although there is no evidence that it causes more severe illness, it has been found to contain many mutations, one of which is currently taking off in South Africa.
Still, both BioNTech and Moderna appear steadfast in the belief that their existing vaccines will be sufficient to stop the new strain. Part of this, it seems, centers on the fact that both vaccines use messenger RNA, a novel technology that works by encoding the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 into the cells. This matters because, despite the differences between the two strains, the new variant represents — according to both companies — a “less than a 1 percent difference” in proteins.
Equally confident about the vaccine’s ability to prevent the new mutations is Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “It’s not easy for viruses to evade a vaccine within such a short time period, especially because the virus hasn't really been exposed to the people that have been vaccinated,” Adalja tells Yahoo Life.
On top of the fact that vaccinations are just beginning to roll out, he says that vaccines activate the immune system in more ways than one. “Vaccines induce not just one antibody, but many different antibodies and they also induce T-cell immunity,” says Adalja. T-cells, otherwise known as the “soldiers” of the immune system, can work on many different viruses, and he says may therefore be able to “neutralize” the virus.
Dr. Andrew Badley, head of the Mayo Clinic’s COVID-19 task force tells Yahoo Life in a statement that his team is “closely watching the developments and ongoing research” but that the current situation shouldn’t be cause for alarm. “We know that the virus mutates 1-2 times a month, so it is not a surprise,” Badley says. He notes that some of the new mutations are worrisome in that they “increase the ease of the virus entry into cells” and “may help evade antibodies,” but that thus far they do not appear to be a threat to vaccines.
“To date there is no evidence that the new viral variant either escapes immunity, nor resists current therapies,” says Badley. “So that is good news for now. It is a reminder that we need to continue to take precautions: wear masks, socially distance, keep washing our hands well and often.”
In the event that one of the new mutations of the virus is able to evade the immunity created by the vaccine, both Adalja and Sahin say that it will likely not be difficult to reformulate the vaccine to include them. “If there was an issue because it's an mRNA it can easily be updated to include an alternative strain,” says Adalja. “But I don’t think it’s going to come to that.”
BioNTech’s Sahin, during Tuesday’s press conference, agreed. “In principle, the beauty of the messenger technology is that we can directly start to engineer a vaccine which completely mimics this new mutation,” he said. “We could be able to provide a new vaccine technically within six weeks."
For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.