British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has raised concerns about how effective existing COVID-19 vaccines might be against the highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus discovered in South Africa.
“There are concerns that the South African one in particular – about how effective the vaccine would be against it – so we simply cannot take chances,” he told Sky TV.
Shapps, a key member of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Cabinet, was speaking as Britain announced a new requirement for passengers to have a negative test before arrival into England and Scotland.
According to a laboratory study conducted by the US drugmaker, Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine appears to work against a key mutation in the highly infectious new strains discovered in the UK and South Africa.
The not-yet-peer-reviewed study, carried out by Pfizer and scientists from the University of Texas Medical Branch, indicated the vaccine was effective in neutralising virus with the ‘N501Y’ mutation of the spike protein.
The mutation could be responsible for greater transmissibility and there had been concern it could also make the virus escape antibody neutralisation elicited by the vaccine, said Phil Dormitzer, one of Pfizer’s top viral vaccine scientists.
“So we’ve now tested 16 different mutations, and none of them have really had any significant impact. That’s the good news,” he said.
“That doesn’t mean that the 17th won’t.”
The study’s findings are limited, because it does not look at the full set of mutations found in either of the new variants of the rapidly spreading virus.
Scientists have expressed concern that vaccines being rolled out may not be able to protect against the new variants, particularly the one that emerged in South Africa.
Simon Clarke, an associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, said this week that while both variants had some new features in common, the one found in South Africa “has a number of additional mutations” that included more extensive alterations to the spike protein.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and the one from Moderna, which use synthetic messenger ribonucleic acid (RNA) technology, can be quickly tweaked to address new mutations of a virus if necessary.
Scientists have suggested the changes could be made in as little as six weeks.