According to Reuters , UK scientists expressed concern on Monday that COVID-19 vaccines being rolled out in Britain may not be able to protect against a new variant of the coronavirus that emerged in South Africa and has spread internationally.
Lawrence Young, a virologist and professor of molecular oncology at Warwick University, also noted that the South African variant has “multiple spike mutations”.
“The accumulation of more spike mutations in the South African variant are more of a concern and could lead to some escape from immune protection,” he said.
“We are urgently doing experiments in the laboratory to test the variant,” against the blood of people with antibodies and against the blood of people who have received vaccines, Lessells told The Associated Press on Monday.
The tests, called neutralizing assays, will help determine the reliability of vaccines against the variant, he said.
The South African variant, 501.V2, is more infectious than the original COVID-19 virus and has rapidly become dominant in the country’s coastal areas. It is expected that the variant will quickly become dominant inland in Johannesburg, the country’s largest city, and the surrounding Gauteng province, he said.
The New York Times reported that the vaccination of millions of people may force the virus to new adaptations, mutations that help it evade or resist the immune response. Already, there are small changes in the virus that have arisen independently multiple times across the world, suggesting these mutations are helpful to the pathogen.
The mutation affecting antibody susceptibility — technically called the 69-70 deletion, meaning there are missing letters in the genetic code — has been seen at least three times: in Danish minks, in people in Britain and in an immune-suppressed patient who became much less sensitive to convalescent plasma.
“This thing’s transmitting, it’s acquiring, it’s adapting all the time,” said Dr. Ravindra Gupta, a virologist at the University of Cambridge, who last week detailed the deletion’s recurrent emergence and spread. “But people don’t want to hear what we say, which is: This virus will mutate.”
The new genetic deletion changes the spike protein on the surface of the coronavirus, which it needs to infect human cells. Variants of the virus with this deletion arose independently in Thailand and Germany in early 2020, and became prevalent in Denmark and England in August.
Scientists initially thought the new coronavirus was stable and unlikely to escape vaccine-induced immune response, said Dr. Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London.