A newly discovered strain of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has the United Kingdom on its strictest lockdown yet, and has prompted concern over its potential effect on the new coronavirus vaccines. However, experts say that there is no evidence to suggest that current vaccines, which were approved in the U.K., Canada and the United States in December would be any less effective against the new strain.
Dubbed “B.1.1.7 lineage” or “VUI–202012/01,” the strain was first discovered in September, and contains several mutations, according to Newsweek. The U.K. government claims that it could be up to 70 per cent more transmissible than the original virus, but not more lethal.
Virologists emphasized that existing vaccines would be just as effective in their use against the strain, but that they are still learning about it and it is possible that their assessment could change with forthcoming data. Researchers say they are investigating genetic changes to the coronavirus and whether these mutations could help it overcome immunity created by the vaccines.
"We are not seeing any increased virulence (clinical severity) or any gross changes in the S (spike protein) that will reduce vaccine effectiveness—so far,” said Dr. Julian Tang, a virologist at the University of Leicester in the U.K.
"Hopefully, [the new strain] does not alter the immune response sufficiently to interfere with the vaccine protection. While the consequences of this new strain are still being worked out, it seems prudent to try to reduce its spread around the U.K. and the rest of the world,” said Martin Hibberd, Professor of Emerging Infectious Disease at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
In the United States, Dr. Moncef Slaoui, the chief adviser of the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed vaccine distribution program, told CNN that the new strain is unlikely to impact the effectiveness of the vaccines currently available.
"Up to now, I don't think there has been a single variant that would be resistant,” he said. "This particular variant in the U.K., I think, is very unlikely to have escaped the vaccine immunity."
Admiral Brett Giroir, Assistant Secretary for Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told ABC News on Sunday that there was “no reason for alarm right now,” adding that the department was monitoring the variant.
"We don't know that it's more dangerous and, very importantly, we have not seen a single mutation yet that would make it evade the vaccine. I can't say that won't happen in the future, but right now it looks like the vaccine will cover everything that we see,” he said.
It is possible that researchers will need to tweak the existing COVID-19 vaccines to deal with future mutations, in the same way that the flu vaccine is modified each year to overcome seasonal mutations.