Pfizer's Covid-19 vaccine appears to work against mutation in new coronavirus strains, study finds

CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta looks at the increasing number of Covid-19 cases and deaths in the United States and explains why health experts are unsure when these numbers will peak.

Posted: Jan 8, 2021 6:40 PM
Updated: Jan 8, 2021 6:40 PM

A new study provides early evidence that a Covid-19 vaccine might be effective against two new coronavirus strains first identified in South Africa and the UK, despite a concerning mutation.

The two strains share a mutation known as N501Y that scientists worry could allow the virus to evade the immune protection generated by a vaccine.

In research posted online Thursday, scientists found that antibodies from people who had received the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine showed "no reduction in neutralization activity" against a version of the virus that carries the N501Y mutation, which they created in the lab.

In order to do this, researchers tested the virus against blood from 20 people who had received two doses of the vaccine as part of a clinical trial.

The N501Y mutation is located in the coronavirus' spike protein -- the same structure targeted by vaccines. The virus uses this protein to enter the cells it attacks.

This particular mutation appears to help the virus attach to human cells, which may partly explain why these new strains appear to be more transmissible. But it is just one of many mutations in both strains that scientists have worried could make the virus less susceptible to vaccines or treatments.

The study -- conducted by researchers at Pfizer and the University of Texas Medical Branch -- does not test the full array of these mutation, nor has it been peer-reviewed.

While viruses are expected to mutate -- often in ways that are neutral or even harmful to the virus -- experts say the whole is not merely the sum of the parts: Some mutations are known to interact with one another, occasionally changing the shape or function of structures like the spike protein.

"A limitation of this study is that the mutation was tested in isolation," Deborah Dunn-Walters, chair of the British Society for Immunology's taskforce on Covid-19 and immunology, said in a statement. She noted that mutations that may have a compound effect "should be tested together."

Because people usually make more than one type of antibody against a virus, experts say it's unlikely such a mutation would render the virus completely resistant to a vaccine. However, experts aren't so sure the new strains will have no impact at all.

"We will need to see actual protection from new variants in participants in the clinical trials that are still running to be sure the vaccine is equally effective," Alexander Edwards, associate professor in biomedical technology at University of Reading's school of pharmacy in the UK, said in a statement. Neither Edwards nor Dunn-Walters was involved in the new research.

If a virus is more transmissible or less susceptible to a vaccine, experts say that could also raise the bar for the number of people who would have to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.

In a statement last month, Pfizer said it had performed similar tests on "multiple mutant strains. To date, we have found consistent coverage of all the strains tested."

It will be important to continue "monitoring of the significance of changes for vaccine coverage," the researchers wrote in the new paper.

That's because of "the possibility that a future mutation ... might necessitate a vaccine strain change." Both Pfizer's and Moderna's vaccines use genetic technology that would allow the vaccines to be quickly adapted to account for mutations, they noted.

In a statement Friday, BioNTech said it and Pfizer "are encouraged by these early, in vitro study findings," but stressed that "further data are needed" to track the how effective the vaccine is at preventing disease caused by new variants.

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Illinois Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 7 p.m. CT)

Cases: 1387904

Reported Deaths: 25505
CountyCasesDeaths
Cook55597610438
DuPage923281316
Will769071031
Lake683241011
Kane59394804
Winnebago34070501
Madison30911526
McHenry29179294
St. Clair28287519
Peoria23443340
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Sangamon19075237
McLean18544187
Tazewell17217304
Rock Island15238328
Kankakee14536216
Kendall1327198
LaSalle12768249
Macon10992211
DeKalb10101121
Vermilion10000141
Adams8667126
Williamson7573134
Whiteside7197174
Boone682977
Ogle620683
Grundy598778
Clinton578791
Coles5765100
Knox5640153
Jackson510065
Henry507470
Livingston489691
Woodford482382
Stephenson481585
Macoupin478288
Effingham476672
Franklin454678
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Jefferson4418122
Monroe438094
Lee419453
Randolph416387
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Logan396263
Morgan393282
Christian383875
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Bureau378283
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Perry319960
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Jersey271652
Douglas260536
Saline260157
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Union227040
Crawford214425
Bond208724
Cass203127
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Clark183633
Jo Daviess182724
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Hancock180231
Carroll178037
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Edgar176240
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Washington164825
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De Witt157329
Mason154145
Piatt152314
Clay149543
Mercer149334
Johnson147216
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Massac135840
Wabash135612
Cumberland130019
Menard124812
Jasper116118
Marshall108219
Hamilton84215
Schuyler7797
Brown7286
Pulaski7007
Stark64824
Edwards57712
Henderson53114
Calhoun5292
Scott4881
Putnam4863
Alexander47311
Gallatin4684
Hardin39112
Pope3274
Out of IL20
Unassigned02422

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 8 p.m. ET)

Cases: 749835

Reported Deaths: 13752
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion1031281779
Lake555181006
Allen41642691
St. Joseph36959564
Hamilton36537416
Elkhart29373459
Tippecanoe22871224
Vanderburgh22544400
Porter19339325
Johnson18412388
Hendricks17594317
Clark13202193
Madison13128344
Vigo12606253
LaPorte12400221
Monroe12175175
Delaware10949198
Howard10270225
Kosciusko9615119
Hancock8556145
Bartholomew8162157
Warrick7854156
Floyd7775180
Grant7230179
Wayne7158201
Boone6922103
Morgan6742141
Dubois6211118
Marshall6208116
Cass5997109
Henry5894108
Dearborn589078
Noble580287
Jackson508774
Shelby500897
Lawrence4735121
Gibson444293
Harrison441073
Clinton440455
DeKalb438985
Montgomery434890
Whitley406042
Huntington402281
Steuben399359
Miami392968
Jasper387054
Knox375790
Putnam372160
Wabash360683
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Adams344955
Jefferson335685
White330853
Daviess3031100
Wells295181
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Greene286685
Fayette284864
Posey273735
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Clay266048
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Spencer234231
Starke227858
Fountain219147
Sullivan214043
Owen211258
Fulton202142
Jay200932
Carroll193420
Orange188155
Perry187037
Rush175726
Vermillion174044
Franklin170235
Tipton166046
Parke149016
Pike138134
Blackford136132
Pulaski120347
Newton113036
Brown104043
Crawford102316
Benton101114
Martin91615
Warren83615
Switzerland8108
Union72810
Ohio57811
Unassigned0420