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South African virus mutation raises questions over vaccine effectiveness

Scientists express concern over E484K strain, which Cambridge microbiologist warns ‘could be the start of problems for spike vaccines’ developed by Pfizer, Moderna

Illustrative: A healthcare worker receives a second Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine shot at Beaumont Health in Southfield, Michigan, January 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)
Illustrative: A healthcare worker receives a second Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine shot at Beaumont Health in Southfield, Michigan, January 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

PARIS (AFP) — As the British coronavirus variant occupies countries’ pandemic plans due to its increased transmissibility, other mutations to the Sars-CoV-2 are provoking concern among scientists who are scrambling to work out if they will respond to vaccines.

In particular, one mutation, known as E484K, detected initially in South Africa and on subsequent variants in Brazil and Japan, has raised alarm among researchers.

Ravi Gupta, professor of microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said it is this mutation — and not the much-covered British variant — that is “the most worrying of all.”

Although research into the new variant is limited, a Brazilian study this month looked at a patient who had recovered from COVID-19 only to become reinfected with the new, mutated strain.

The paper has yet to be peer-reviewed, but the authors found that the E484K mutation could be “associated with escape from neutralizing antibodies” — meaning it could bypass the body’s natural defense memory that bestows immunity.

A patient wearing an oxygen mask is being treated in makeshift emergency units at Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Pretoria, South Africa, January 11, 2021, as the country battles an ever-increasing number of COVID-19 patients. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

As countries accelerate their vaccination programs, there is concern that the new mutation may render certain vaccines less effective.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccine, for example, use mRNA technology to deliver instructions to the body to produce a harmless coronavirus spike protein, which the immune system then learns to kill in anticipation of a genuine infection.

With E484K, as with the British variant, the mutation occurs on the virus’ spike protein, which allows it to bind more easily with human cell receptors, potentially heightening its infectiousness.

Gupta said the mutation “could be the start of problems for spike vaccines.”

“They should all be effective at the moment but we worry about further mutations occurring on top of these ones,” he told AFP.

‘Bypass current protection’

Pfizer and German partner BioNTech said last week that their vaccine was effective against the N501Y mutation found on the British virus variant, known as B117.

Francois Balloux, professor of Computational Systems Biology and Director of University College London’s Genetics Institute, said it was unlikely that the South African variant had mutated sufficiently to “bypass the protection provided by current vaccines.”

But, he warned: “The E484K mutation has been shown to reduce antibody recognition.

“As such, it helps the virus Sars-CoV-2 to bypass immune protection provided by prior infection or vaccination,” Balloux said.

This 2020 electron microscope image made available by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases shows a Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 particle isolated from a patient, in a laboratory in Fort Detrick, Maryland. (NIAID/NIH via AP)

There have been several mutations to the novel coronavirus since it emerged in late 2019, and most have had a negligible effect on its transmissibility or severity.

But the British variant has shown in several studies to be up to 70 percent more infectious than normal virus strains.

And the South African variant appears to be more effective at avoiding the body’s natural response.

New vaccines?

One pre-print study in December concluded that the two new variants show that Sars-CoV-2 “has the potential to escape an effective immune response.”

Researchers studied what happened to the virus when it was left in contact with plasma taken from a patient who had recovered from COVID-19.

Within three months, the virus had taken on several mutations, including E484K.

The authors suggested that “vaccines and antibodies able to control emerging variants should be developed.”

A man receives a COVID-19 vaccine at the Clalit Covid-19 vaccination center in Jerusalem, on December 24, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Lead researcher Rino Rappuoli, an immunologist at pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline, told AFP that the current spike protein mutations should not pose a problem for existing vaccines, however.

And even if the virus mutates to better evade immune response, vaccines should bestow at least some level of effective immunity.

“Even if you lower the efficacy, there would normally still be some neutralization of the virus,” Vincent Enouf, from Paris’s Pasteur Institute, told AFP.

To be on the safe side, Gupta advocated an accelerated vaccination program, bestowing as much immunity as current vaccines can deliver “as fast as possible all over the world.”

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