If you remember, the South Africa variant (better known as 501v2), Brazil variant (better known as B1.1.28/501.V3), and the UK variant (better known as B1.1.7/501Y.V1) have all recently grabbed the attention of scientists because each have mutations on the spike protein. These are important to investigate because the spike is the keys to our cells. In other words, the virus can mutate to make a smarter key.
There are two new pieces of information this week/today.
First, the 501v2 (South Africa) variant…
-What happened? On Jan 20, a preprint came out from Rockefeller University. They took the antibodies of 20 volunteers who received an mRNA vaccine and mixed it with viruses containing the mutations. This experiment, called an antibody neutralization assay, enables the researchers to determine whether vaccine-induced antibodies will be effective against the new variants of virus circulating globally.
-What did they find? The antibodies effectiveness against the mutations was reduced by a small (but statistically significant) degree (ranged from a 1- to 3-fold reduction).
-What does this mean? The vaccine is working against 501v2 (thanks to the polyclonal response), but these mutations *may* impact the efficacy of the vaccine. We need more “real-world” studies, in addition to the well-controlled, test-tube studies.
Second, the B.1.1.7 (UK) variant…
-What happened? Today, NERVTAG (New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group) met to discuss new studies on B.1.1.7. They previously reported a study in which there was no increase in death due to the new variant. However, with more time comes more data.
-What did they report? There are three new studies (one by The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, one by Imperial College London, and one by University of Exeter) that all showed that the B.1.1.7 is more deadly by about 1.65 fold.
-What does this mean? “There is a realistic possibility that B.1.1.7 is associated with an increased risk of death compared to the virus without these mutations.” While the risk of death remains low, this does increase it by a significant amount. There is a limitation to these studies… Only 10% of COVID19 deaths have their virus coded to know which mutation the person had. In other words, this could be a bias sample. Deaths are lagged from cases, so the more time goes by, the more and more accurate of a picture we will get.
Bottom line: The virus is getting smarter. Slowly but surely. This underscores the need to vaccinate as many people as quickly as we can, because these mutations are signals of antigenic drift.
Rockefeller study: https://www.biorxiv.org/…/2021.01.15.426911v1.full.pdf
NERVTAG meeting minutes: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/…/NERVTAG…
I knew the SA story was coming out at some point this week, so I prepared with two brilliant colleagues, Dr. Jessica Steier (public health scientist) and Dr. Andrea Love (immunologist). They are both doing wonderful work at The Unbiased Science Podcast (www.unbiasedscipod.com).