As the California coronavirus variant has been spread across the Golden State and outside, new study indicates that many vaccines should continue to provide an effective defense against it.
The findings, published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, provide great reason for Californians to maintain rolling their sleeves up as the vaccination campaign picks up steam throughout the state.
“We’re not expecting this variant to be a problem for the vaccines — so that’s really good news,” said study leader David Montefiori, a virologist at Duke University.
The California variant is in fact a pair of closely related fellow travelers known as B.1. 427 and B.1. ) 429. Scientists say they probably emerged in the state in May, then surged to become the dominant breed amid the mortal holiday surge.
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They accounted for 56% of samples from California that were sequenced between Feb. 28 and March 13, in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They have turned up in each state and the District of Columbia, and have disperse up to Australia, Singapore, Israel and Denmark.
The California breed is only one of several so-called variants of concern being tracked by the CDC. Others include B.1.1.7, from the United Kingdom, the P.1 variant in Brazil and also the B.1. 351 version from South Africa. They are threatening because they’re more transmissible, more virulent or more resistant to vaccines compared to their predecessors.
Scientists and public health officials aim to quash those variations by vaccinating the population as quickly as possible. Not only will that interfere with their spread, it is going to deprive them of opportunities to obtain new mutations that may make them even more dangerous.
As these coronavirus versions have emerged and spread much beyond their areas of origin, they’ve raised concerns regarding whether the current crop of vaccines will efficiently shield against them. That’s because the variants have obtained genetic mutations that influence the spike protein, which the virus uses to enter and invade human cells — and which the vaccines use as a target.
The fear is that the mutations could alter the spike protein so much that an immune system trained to recognize an earlier version of the virus could fail to recognize a variant, leaving a vaccinated person with no biological defense.
So a group of researchers decided to put two vaccines to the test.
They analyzed blood samples from those who had obtained the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Moderna or a vaccine candidate from Novavax that has not yet been approved for use in the United States. They then introduced engineered versions of viral variations into those blood samples and waited to see what kind of immune system response they elicited.
The dominant strain in the U.S. is called D614G, and it was neutralized by blood from people who received both of those vaccines.
The California version they tested, B.1. 429, was somewhat less susceptible to both the Moderna and the Novavax vaccines, but both shots generated effective defense, the researchers found. That’s because the body generates much higher antibody levels than are actually needed to neutralize the virus, Montefiori explained.
And while the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was not analyzed in this paper, it would probably perform about as well as this Moderna vaccine, since both use similar technologies, he said.
“People in Los Angeles can feel very good about getting the current vaccines — that they’re going to be just as protected by those vaccines as people living in areas where they don’t have the California variant,” Montefiori said.
“It’s always nice to get that type of a result,” he added.
But with the two sexes, there was a substantial drop in performance against the South African variant.
Those laboratory results weren’t perfect, but they weren’t exactly a surprise. In clinical trials, the Novavax vaccine was 89% effective in the United Kingdom however just 49% effective in South Africa, where B.1. 351 dominates.
Similarly, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that decreased the chance of moderate to severe illness by 72percent when tested in the U.S. was only 57% effective in South Africa. And a vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University functioned no better than a placebo when it was analyzed in a South African clinical trial.
The paper was among many published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Wednesday concerning viral variations and vaccines.
A group of South African researchers that tested blood plasma from patients that were infected with the South Africa variant reported that their antibodies provided a substantial amount of protection against the”original” version of the coronavirus, as well as the Brazilian breed.
The upshot: Vaccines designed to target the B.1. 351 version of this spike protein might be effective against a range of variants, the researchers suggested.
In a different newspaper, scientists in Israel analyzed the antibody responses in blood samples in six healthcare workers who had been infected and afterwards received a single dose of the Pfizer vaccine. They found that after vaccination, their immune systems revved up from the original virus and also the U.K., Brazilian and South African variants, with antibody responses that were 114, 203, 81 and 228 times as large, respectively, as before their shots.
“This highlights the importance of vaccination even in previously infected patients, given the added benefit of an increased antibody response to the variants tested,” the researchers wrote.
The South Africa variant may stoke worries about vaccine resistance, but so far it’s done little more than establish a foothold in the U.S., Montefiori said. According to the CDC, there have been 386 confirmed cases between B.1. 351 as of Tuesday, in comparison with 16,275 between the U.K. version.
It’s important to keep in mind that these kinds of tests don’t measure the full level of protection a vaccine supplies in a genuine person, said Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert at UC San Francisco who wasn’t involved in the new study.
For instance, these tests seem at antibodies, although not T-cells, that comprise another vital arm of the immune system’s defenses.
“This is a lab study,” Gandhi said. “This doesn’t tell us in real life if these vaccines aren’t going to be able to elicit enough T-cells, which is super hard to measure, to bring down the South Africa virus.”
John Moore, a virologist at Weill Cornell Medical College who was not involved in the new work, agreed.
There’s just so much that can be extrapolated from the immune response seen in blood samples, however a research like this does provide useful clues”as to whether different variants are or are not likely to be a problem for vaccines,” Moore said. “It’s a guide.”