Pfizer vaccine effective against UK, South African COVID variants, UTMB study says – Houston Chronicle

The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine can neutralize the SARS-CoV-2 strain mutations that have proliferated in the United Kingdom and South Africa, according to researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch.

UTMB and the pharmaceutical company Pfizer/BioNTech worked together for a new study, published Tuesday in medical journal Nature Medicine.

The study used serum derived from 20 vaccine recipients to test the efficacy of the Pfizer formula on each known coronavirus variant, said Dr. Pei-Yong Shi, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at UTMB. Another variant that originated in Brazil is still being studied.

The news comes one day after the University of Texas at Austin announced the UK strain was detected on campus, and Houston Methodist Hospital reported the Houston area’s first case of the South African variant.

More than 600 cases of the UK strain have been reported in 33 states, while Texas becomes only the fourth state to confirm a case involving the South African variant, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

UTMB, through its year-old partnership with Pfizer, developed a reverse genetic system for Sars-COV-2 to make and manipulate the virus in a petri dish in a laboratory setting, Shi said. Once the system was in place, researchers were able to engineer and insert mutations into the virus to see how they proliferate inside its cells.

By visualizing how mutations infect the cell, scientists were able to understand whether the mRNA vaccine would be effective against the UK and South African variants, Shi said.

The vaccine appears to be more effective against the UK variant than the South African one, though Shi said the difference is “very modest.”

More COVID variant studies are underway at the Galveston research hospital, including identifying common amino acid mutations. All of the new variants — regardless of their country of origin — contain the N501 amino acid at the spike protein, according to Shi.

Early results will be available in the next few weeks.

UTMB labs were used in Phase 1, 2 and pre-clinical testing for the Pfizer vaccine. And Shi said the team was thrilled when the company was first to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration with 95 percent efficacy.

UTMB is collaborating on a number of studies with Pfizer/BioNTech, which are funded by the pharmaceutical company, grants from the National Institutes of Health and various philanthropic donors.

“I thought we could take a break, but then here comes these new variants,” Shi said. “It threw us into a new chaotic situation.”

Houston Methodist found the region’s first case of the South African variant on Feb. 6 while sequencing the genomes of positive test results. It also found two cases of the UK variant in that sequence. The first UK variant case in the Houston area was confirmed in early January.

While the vaccine will keep a person from becoming very sick or dying from COVID-19, scientists are still uncertain whether a vaccinated person will contract the virus, become asymptomatic and pass it on.

UTMB researchers are now working to determine if transmission is increased as a result of the mutations. However, being vaccinated will boost the body’s antibody activity, regardless of new variants, Shi said.

“These are the things we still don’t know,” he said. “That’s why getting vaccinated is so important because it will limit the virus from transmitting and minimize the chance to make further mutations. The more mutations it can make means a higher chance of eroding the current vaccine’s efficacy.”

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