Pfizer and Moderna’s current Covid-19 vaccines can be easily adapted to new strains of the virus, which drug makers are already working on, said White House Health Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, on Wednesday.
New strains of the coronavirus have emerged in the UK, South Africa and Brazil, which is a cause for concern among scientists. While it’s no surprise that the virus is mutating, researchers are quick to figure out what the changes could mean for recently developed life-saving vaccines and treatments for the disease.
Some early results, published on the preprint server bioRxiv and not yet peer-reviewed, indicate that the variant identified in South Africa, referred to by scientists as the B.1.351 strain, corresponds to the antibodies of some coronavirus – Dodge treatments and these can reduce effectiveness of the current line of available vaccines. Fauci told CNN in an interview that it was very similar to the new strain in Brazil.
There is some good news, however: the newly developed mRNA technology used to make Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines makes it easier to adapt to the new strains, Fauci said. He added that drug makers are already working on so-called “booster” shots targeting the variant found in South Africa that appears to be more problematic than the others.
“We’re already trying to get a step or two ahead of the game so that when we actually have a situation where the South African strain is here – it’s here but it is certainly not dominant so you can really achieve something.” from a protection standpoint, “said Fauci.” You will want a vaccine that works specifically against this strain.
Earlier Wednesday, Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, said federal agencies would work together to investigate how effective Covid-19 vaccines are against mutated strains of the virus. While the approved ones are still highly effective against the strain B.1.1.7 first identified in Great Britain, things get “a little more problematic” with the strain B.1.351.
Even then, both vaccines have been shown in clinical trials to be 95% effective at preventing Covid-19, which allows for a bit of cushioning where the vaccines will still work if either variant reduces its effectiveness, the infectious disease expert said .
You don’t have to start from scratch to test the effectiveness of the booster vaccines, Fauci said. The booster vaccinations don’t have to go through the same large-scale clinical trials that were required for the original vaccines to get emergency approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in December, he said, adding that they are entering a “rapid phase one.” “Try instead.
“You don’t have to do a 30,000 person process or a 40,000 person process,” said Fauci. “You work with the FDA and can bridge information from one study to the next. The bottom line is that we’re already at it.”
Moderna announced on Monday that its Covid-19 vaccine may be less effective against the B.1.351 strain in South Africa and that the company is accelerating work on a booster shot to protect this variant “out of caution”.
Pfizer said Tuesday that the company will also work with German drug maker BioNTech to develop a booster shot, according to a Reuters report quoting an email from the company.
A Pfizer spokesman told CNBC that the company released a study on Wednesday that had not yet been peer-reviewed. It found that the vaccine was still effective against laboratory mutations observed in the new strains in the UK and South Africa.
While the mutations observed in the variant found in South Africa had little effect, it is still “unlikely that they will significantly reduce the effectiveness of the vaccine”.
“While these results do not suggest that a new vaccine is needed to address the emerging variants, companies stand ready to act if a variant of SARS-CoV-2 shows evidence of immunity from the COVID-19 vaccine escapes, “the statement said.
It wasn’t clear when the study was published and whether Pfizer-BioNTech would make a booster.
– CNBC’s Will Feuer and Berkeley Lovelace Jr. contributed to this report.