The international medical community has heralded the development and release of effective vaccines as one of the most significant milestones in the coronavirus pandemic, creating optimism that an end is in sight for the worst days of the disease. But it wasn’t long after inoculations began to roll out that variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus were discovered around the world that made it more contagious than the previous dominant strain—as well as raised questions on how the mutations might affect how well the vaccines work. Now, a new study has suggested that the COVID vaccine or the natural immunity in patients who have already recovered from the disease may not protect against being infected by the new strain of the virus. Read on to see what researchers says could be putting you at risk, and for more on hints your body may be giving you, check out If You Have This Subtle Symptom, You Might Have Already Had COVID.
Antibodies have shown to be ineffective against one variant.
The study, which was released in pre-print and has not yet been peer-reviewed, took blood from 44 patients who had recovered from COVID-19 prior to September, which is when the South African strain of the virus was first discovered, CNN reports. Troublingly, researchers found that half of the patients were not protected by their natural antibodies against the variant—officially called SARS-CoV-2 501Y.V2—which raises concern that vaccines will fall short in protecting from the strain as well.
“I think we should be alarmed,” Penny Moore, PhD, associate professor at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases in South Africa and the senior author of the study. “We saw a knockout. It was a scary result.”
More severe COVID cases generate a better immune response.
The findings showed that for about half of the 44 subjects, antibodies were unable to protect them from reinfection from the virus. However, the other half of subjects, who had experienced more severe cases of COVID during their initial infection, saw a weakened but not completely diminished immune reaction to the new strain thanks to their original increased antibody response.
Researchers also found that two mutations on the surface of the South African strain directly affected spikes that are used as targets by vaccines. “Based on Penny’s data, it’s likely that the vaccine is going to be somewhat less effective, but how much less effective we don’t know,” David Montefiori, PhD, a virologist at Duke University Medical Center, told CNN. And for more on how you can keep yourself safe, check out If You’re Not Doing This, Your Mask Won’t Protect You, Study Says.
Researchers are now testing against the vaccine.
With the potential vulnerability exposed, researchers are now continuing to study how the development could diminish the effectiveness of vaccines. But many fear that the evidence currently suggests there’s a serious problem: “I don’t have any reason to think the results with people who’ve been vaccinated will be any different than with the people who had prior infection,” Montefiori told CNN.
Others point out that there are now serious consequences that could be felt in the coming days. “I worry desperately in the next six to 12 weeks we’re going to see a situation with this pandemic unlike anything we’ve seen yet to date. And that is really a challenge that I don’t think most people realize yet,” Michael Osterholm, PhD, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota and a member of President-elect Joe Biden’s Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board, said CNN’s New Day.
Researchers stress that people should still get vaccinated.
Despite the disheartening discovery, researchers are still suggesting that as many people as possible take the vaccine to protect themselves, suggesting that the doses may create the larger antibody response required to fight off the South African strain. Moore pointed out one recent study from Sheba Medical Center in Israel, which has yet to be peer-reviewed or posted online, that found 102 healthcare workers who received both doses of Pfizer’s vaccine produced bloodwork that showed an antibody response much higher than patients who had previously suffered from severe COVID.
“We have to remember, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are 95 percent effective—that’s an extraordinary level of efficacy,” Montefiori told CNN. “If it reduces to 90, 80, 70 percent effective, that is still very, very good and likely to have a major impact on the pandemic.” And for more on what you should know before you get your jab, check out Dr. Fauci Just Gave This Warning About COVID Vaccine Side Effects.