While recently approved vaccines are believed to maintain efficacy against two newly detected coronavirus variants, research into what impact the South African mutation of the virus may have on the shots is ongoing. As such, researchers are exploring potential boosters or tweaks to the already-approved mRNA vaccines that would target specific mutants that are hampering the jabs ability to induce an antibody response, Dr. Anthony Fauci said.
“We all know RNA viruses mutate all the time, that’s what they do, that’s their business,” Fauci said during the Biden administration’s first White House coronavirus briefing held on Wednesday. “There are very few, but they do happen, where you get one that has functional relevancy to it like greater transmissibility.”
The B.1.1.7 variant, which was discovered first in the U.K. and has since spread to 46 other countries including the U.S., is believed to be behind recent surges that resulted in lockdowns in England and travel restrictions elsewhere. The variant is more transmissible than others, but is not believed to be more virulent.
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Fauci said it’s important to determine what the relationship is between the mutant and the induction of antibodies by the vaccines that are currently being used. As such, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is pairing with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to expand “more real-time” genomic sequencing and surveillance of coronavirus samples.
A key in the surveillance will be to monitor the current vaccines’ ability to neutralize the mutant, and as efficacy gets further and further from the threshold it may become necessary to rework the existing shot to provide an alternative so-called booster to better protect.
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“Namely, making a version of the same vaccine that in fact would be directed specifically against relevant mutants,” Fauci said. “All of that is going on in real-time as we speak.”
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Fauci also noted in his opening remarks that Phase 3 trials for J&J’s vaccine candidate are underway in several countries outside the U.S., including South Africa. While the U.S. has yet to see the South African variant, identified as P.1., data form the trials being conducted elsewhere would give a good indication of how the vaccine holds up against the mutation.