South African variant may evade Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, study finds

The coronavirus variant discovered in South Africa may evade Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine, according to a real-world data study conducted in Israel.

Known as variant B.1.351, the variant was found to make up around 1% of all COVID-19 cases across the people studied according to results which have yet to be peer-reviewed.

But among patients who had received two doses of the vaccine, the variant’s prevalence was eight times higher than in unvaccinated people – 5.4% versus 0.7%.

Results suggest the vaccine is less effective against the South African variant compared with the variant found in Britain, which comprises nearly all cases in Israel.

There are caveats however – the study had a small sample size of people infected with the South African variant.

The research was not intended to measure overall vaccine effectiveness against any particular variant and only looked at people who already tested positive for the disease, not overall infection rates.

Pfizer has not commented publicly on the study, Reuters reported.

Updated trial data from Pfizer and BioNTech announced at the beginning of the month showed the shot is around 91% effective at preventing the disease.

The companies have said that the vaccine could be quickly updated to counter emerging variants, with regulators prepared to accept smaller studies as safety has already been established in wider trials and real-world settings.

The vaccine is based on an RNA code for the Spike protein found on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus,

Adi Stern, associate professor at Tel Aviv University, told Reuters that the UK variant may be “blocking” the spread of the South African strain.

“Even if the South African variant does break through the vaccine’s protection, it has not spread widely through the population,” he said.

Around 53% of Israel’s 9.3 million population has received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

Infection rates, severe illness and hospitalisations have fallen sharply in the country, which has recently begun to reopen its economy.

Feature image copyright BioNTech SE 2020, all rights reserved

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