New COVID variants raise spectre of a global health catastrophe. Will they outpace vaccine development?

Scientists want to understand why SARS-CoV-2 variants identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa seem to be spreading so quickly, and whether they might diminish the potency of vaccines or overcome natural immunity and lead to spate of reinfections.

“Many of us are scrambling to make sense of the new variants, and the million-dollar question is what significance this will have for the effectiveness of vaccines that are currently being administered,” says Jeremy Luban, a virologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.

The first lab results are trickling in and many more are expected in coming days, as researchers rush to probe the viral variants and their constituent mutations in cell and animal models of SARS-CoV-2, and test them against antibodies elicited by vaccines and natural infections. A preprint published on 8 January found that a mutation shared by both variants did not alter the activity of antibodies produced by people who received a vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNtech.

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[Viral evolutionary biologist Jesse] Bloom and other scientists are hopeful that the mutations in the variants won’t substantially weaken the performance of vaccines. The shots tend to elicit whopping levels of neutralizing antibodies, so a small drop in their potency against the variants may not matter.

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Infographic: Deaths from COVID-19 are far higher than reported estimates

Infographic: Deaths from COVID-19 are far higher than reported estimates

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