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Pfizer vaccine appears effective against British virus variant — study

Research comes as spread of more transmissible UK strain raises global concerns, with top Israeli health official saying it now accounts for 30%-40% of new cases in country

An Israeli health worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech coronavirus vaccine at Netanya stadium on January 20, 2021, in the coastal city of Netanya. (Jack Guez/AFP)
An Israeli health worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech coronavirus vaccine at Netanya stadium on January 20, 2021, in the coastal city of Netanya. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine appears to be effective against the new, more infectious coronavirus variant that was first detected in Britain and has since been found in dozens of countries, according to two preliminary studies released Wednesday.

The strain, known as B.1.1.7, has caused alarm among experts because of its increased ability to spread and supercharge virus outbreaks.

It is one of several concerning new variants — each with a cluster of genetic mutations — that have emerged in recent weeks.

Researchers on Wednesday said that their early findings, which have yet to be peer-reviewed, suggested that the variant would not be able to evade the protective effect of current vaccines.

“Our results suggest that the majority of vaccine responses should be effective against the B.1.1.7 variant,” concluded researchers from Britain and the Netherlands in one of the studies.

The authors tested the new variant in the laboratory with antibody-rich blood plasma from 36 patients who had recovered from either mild or severe forms of COVID-19.

Most were able to neutralize the variant, although the study found reduced potency in three samples.

A nurse administers a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to a health care worker in Liege, Belgium, January 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

“Our findings stress the importance of continuous monitoring of variants and in vitro assessment of their impact on neutralization,” they said.

A separate preliminary study by researchers from BioNTech and Pfizer also found their vaccine to be effective against the B.1.1.7 variant.

They compared the neutralizing effect of plasma from 16 participants in their vaccine clinical trials against the British variant and the original virus that emerged in Wuhan, China, in late 2019.

They found an “equivalent” neutralization capacity to both variants, concluding it was “unlikely” the B.1.1.7 variant could escape the immune protection of the vaccine.

The authors noted that it would be “prudent” to prepare for the possibility that virus strains will develop beyond the reach of the current vaccine. But they added that the flexibility of the technology of the messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine would allow it to be adapted to new strains relatively quickly.

In previous preliminary research from Pfizer/BioNTech released earlier this month, scientists found the vaccine was effective against a mutation, N501Y, common to the virus variants found in Britain, South Africa and Brazil.

This mutation involves a change in the virus’s spike protein, which enables it to latch onto human cells and therefore plays a key role in infection.

But it is yet another mutation, known as E484K and present in the variants detected in South Africa and Brazil, but not the one from Britain, that has experts particularly worried about immunity “escape.”

Most scientists have been maintaining that the British and South African variants, which have reached Israel as well, are more transmissible than the original strain, but less deadly.

“Variants with this mutation could reduce vaccine efficacy, though most likely all current vaccines would still be highly effective,” Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at Britain’s University of East Anglia, told Reuters.

AstraZeneca, Moderna and CureVac have also been testing whether their respective vaccines will protect against the new variants, but they have yet to release their results.

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash receives a COVID-19 vaccine in Herzliya, December 20, 2020 (Flash90)

Israel’s coronavirus czar Nachman Ash told ministers Tuesday that the UK variant accounts for 30-40 percent of current infections and will become the dominant strain in Israel within weeks.

The head of public health at the ministry, Sharon Alroy-Preis, said there is no indication so far that the strain is resistant to the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine that Israel is using in its rapid mass vaccination drive, which has so far given the first of the two-dose inoculation to over a quarter of the country’s population, Channel 12 reported.

Ran Balicer, head of the expert panel that advises Ash speculated to Ynet Wednesday that the British variant would become the main strain in Israel in a matter of weeks.

Government ministers on Tuesday voted to extend the national lockdown by an additional 10 days, as Israel saw its highest-yet coronavirus infection rates since the start of the pandemic.

The lockdown, already in its third week, was due to end automatically on Thursday night had an extension not been issued. Following the unanimous cabinet decision, is it is now scheduled to end on January 31.

In addition, ministers also approved a fine of NIS 2,500 ($772) for anyone who arrives in the country without a recent negative virus test, according to the Prime Minister’s Office. Under the new policy, the test must be conducted within 72 hours before landing in Israel.

Police at a temporary roadblock by the beach promenade in Tel Aviv, during a nationwide lockdown. January 16, 2021. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Also on Wednesday, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein presented figures showing that over 210,000 vaccination shots were administered the day before, a new record for the country’s mass inoculation program.

Edelstein provided ministry data showing that 2,272,000 people have so far had the first of the two-shot Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, including 550,000 who have also had their second dose. The number represents close to a quarter of Israel’s 9.3 million citizens and maintains its position as the country with the highest per capita vaccination rate in the world, according to monitoring groups.

A person receives a COVID-19 vaccine, at a vaccination center operated by the Tel Aviv Municipality with Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center (Ichilov), at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, January 19, 2021. (Miriam ALster/Flash90)

His figures were more optimistic than numbers released by the ministry during the morning, which showed that 56,008 people had their first dose on Tuesday and another 114,769 had the second shot for a total of 170,777. It was not clear why there was a discrepancy in the numbers.

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