Vaccines appear less effective against virulently mutating COVID strains spreading through UK and South Africa

Credit: Samantha Lee/Business Insider
Credit: Samantha Lee/Business Insider

News that the B.1.1.7 [UK COVID] variant is evolving further mutations is worrying scientists, said Julian Tang, clinical virologist at Leicester university. “This E484K mutation is already present in the South African 501Y.V2 and Brazilian P1 variants — and is now thought to be the main mutation impacting on vaccine efficacy.” 

Cambridge university scientists have run preliminary laboratory tests on B.1.1.7 virus with the added mutation. They found that antibodies extracted from the blood of people who had received the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine were only one-tenth as effective at neutralising the virus that had the E484K mutation as they were at neutralising the virus that did not have the mutation. 

“Our work suggests the vaccine is likely to be less effective when dealing with this mutation,” said Ravi Gupta, who led the study. “B.1.1.7 will continue to acquire mutations seen in the other variants of concern, so we need to plan for the next generation of vaccines to have modifications to account for new variants. We also need to scale up vaccines as fast and as broadly as possible to get transmission down globally.” 

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However, scientists expect the current vaccines still to reduce severe disease and deaths among people who are inoculated, even though they become less effective at preventing infection. 

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