How concerning are the corona variants and what does this mean for the vaccines? | NOW

In addition to the more contagious British variant, the OMT is also concerned about variants of the corona virus from South America and South Africa. With these two variants, there is concern that they increase the chances of a second infection with the corona virus. We now know this.

On Wednesday, South African scientists announced that the South African variant seems to partly escape the defenses that people have built up after being infected with the original variant. Antibodies that people have produced after a ‘normal’ corona infection seem to work less well against the South African variant.

In addition, the South African scientists warn that a variant discovered in Brazil has important similarities with the variant they studied. The fear is that these variants will cause people to become infected with the corona virus a second time more often.

This does not seem to be the case with the British variant. Here you can read what we now know about this variant.

More than just neutralizing antibodies

Virologist Bart Haagmans of Erasmus MC explains that it is not a good sign that the South African variant appears to be partially resistant to the immune system that is built up after an infection with the original variant. Haagmans emphasizes, however, that we do not yet know what this means in practice.

The South African scientists only looked at so-called neutralizing antibodies. These antibodies are an important part of the immune system, because they are able to quickly make a virus harmless if you come into contact with it a second time. However, the defense you build up after an infection consists of more than just these antibodies. “You may still be (partially) protected,” said Haagmans.

What does this mean for the vaccines that have now been developed?

What do we actually know about the effect of vaccines against these variants? According to Anke Huckriede, professor of Vaccinology at the UMCG, it is unlikely that the vaccines that have now been developed against COVID-19 are no longer effective against these variants at all.

It is possible that the vaccines work a little less well. According to Huckriede, this is currently under intense investigation. Researchers at BioNTech already found that the vaccine they co-developed with Pfizer appears to work as well against the British variant as it did against the original variant. Whether this also applies to other variants is now being investigated.

Haagmans explains that in addition to laboratory research, it is also important to keep a close eye on people who have already been vaccinated. Do vaccinated people still get infected? And if so, do they get infected with one variant remarkably often?

“You want to know how often such an infection leads to hospitalization. Maybe some variants can infect vaccinated people quite often, but vaccination only makes someone mildly ill and there are very few hospital admissions.”

Can the vaccine be modified?

If necessary, it should not be too difficult, according to Huckriede, to adapt the vaccines that have now been developed. The Telegraph reported Thursday that researchers at the University of Oxford are looking at whether they can adapt the vaccine that they have developed together with AstraZeneca to accommodate new variants within 48 hours. Also, according to Huckriede, it is possible that to approve such a modification you need to set up a less extensive study than for approval of the original vaccine.

Almost all vaccines that the Netherlands wants to use consist of two doses. Haagmans explains that if the vaccine has to be adjusted, this does not automatically mean that you need two doses of, for example, the Pfizer vaccine to be protected against a new variant. “Perhaps, if you have already been vaccinated, one extra injection is enough to be well protected against new variants.”


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