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Pfizer to test booster dose for South African COVID-19 variant

Top company scientist says original shot highly likely to still protect; Israeli study says it may be less effective against mutation but still protect against serious disease

In this Jan. 7, 2021, file photo syringes containing the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine sit in a tray in a vaccination room at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, Calif. (AP/Jae C. Hong, File)
In this Jan. 7, 2021, file photo syringes containing the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine sit in a tray in a vaccination room at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, Calif. (AP/Jae C. Hong, File)

Following the highly contagious coronavirus variant that is spreading widely in South Africa and elsewhere, Pzifer is in intensive talks with regulators to test a booster shot version of its vaccine against the mutation, a top scientist told Reuters on Thursday.

However, Phil Dormitzer, one of Pfizer’s leading viral vaccine scientists, said he believes the current vaccine is highly likely to still protect against the South African variant.

“A level of neutralizing antibodies that may be on the order of between a third and a half the level of neutralizing antibodies you see against the original virus does not mean you have only a third to half of the protection level, you may well have full protection,” he said.

Dormitzer said that the company was also developing plans to test a redesigned booster for the vaccine in order “to learn how to change strain, both in terms of what we do at the manufacturing level, and especially what the clinical results are.”

“So if a variant comes along for which there is clinical evidence of escape, we’re ready to respond very quickly,” Dormitzer added.

A young Israeli receives a COVID-19 vaccine, at Clalit vaccination center in Jerusalem, on February 16, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Meanwhile, an Israeli Health Ministry study claimed the vaccine is six times less effective against the South African variant, compared to the original virus and the British variant, the Kan public broadcaster reported Thursday.

The Health Ministry took samples from those who were vaccinated with both Pfizer doses and still contracted the South African variant.

The report did not say how many people were included in the survey.

However, health officials told Kan that those who were infected with the South African variant after being vaccinated experienced a lighter illness compared to those who were not inoculated.

The officials also warned that despite Israel’s wide vaccination drive, the South African variant could spread further and counteract the efforts to exit the pandemic.

In this Feb. 4, 2021 photo, Israelis receive a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from medical professionals at a coronavirus vaccination center set up in a shopping mall parking lot in Givatayim (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Over four million Israelis, or some 46 percent of the country’s total population, have now received the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, ministry data showed Friday. About 2.8 million Israelis have received both doses.

In Israel, there are several hundred active cases of the South African variant, Kan reported.

The Health Ministry said Friday morning there were 48,018 active virus cases, including 3,011 infections diagnosed on Thursday, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 743,814.

The test positivity rate on Thursday was 6.2%, the lowest recorded level since early January.

There were 858 active serious cases, including 295 people on ventilators. The death toll stood at 5,521.

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