The encouraging news comes the same day the US recorded 4,085 deaths from COVID-19, setting a grim, new single-day record.
The United States got some desperately needed good news on Thursday night: A new report found that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is effective against a key mutation found in the new, fast-spreading coronavirus variants first discovered in the United Kingdom and South Africa.
The study, conducted by Pfizer and the University of Texas Medical Branch, has not yet been peer-reviewed, but seems to confirm many scientists’ beliefs that the immune response triggered by the vaccine would be sufficient to combat the new, more contagious variants.
“I think this [study] is really important, because there is a lot of fear and uncertainty at the moment about this specific question,” Shane Crotty, a vaccine and immune system scientist at La Jolla Institute for Immunology, told the Washington Post. “It’s not surprising, but it’s been really important to see some data.”
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The US has approved two highly effective vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer, but the rollout of the vaccines has been disastrous, and questions have arisen over whether the vaccines would remain effective against the new variants. Answering this question has become more urgent in recent days, as the UK variant has been found in at least eight states in the United States.
A more contagious virus not only leads to more cases and more deaths, but also means a higher percentage of the population needs to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity, which could extend the duration of the pandemic.
While the UK and South African variants each carry several mutations, they share one in common—called N501Y—that is thought to be the reason they are more infectious. To determine whether the vaccine is effective against the N501Y mutation, the team of researchers used blood samples from 20 people who received the vaccine and found that antibodies from those vaccine recipients successfully fought off the virus in lab dishes.
The findings still need to be peer-reviewed, but Pfizer chief scientific officer Dr. Philip Dormitzer told the Associated Press (AP) that “it was a very reassuring finding that at least this mutation, which was one of the ones people are most concerned about, does not seem to be a problem” for the vaccine.
The study comes at a time when the pandemic continues to spiral out of control in the United States, reaching once-unimaginable numbers. The US on Thursday recorded 4,085 deaths from COVID-19, setting a grim, new single-day record, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. The nation also recorded 274,703 new cases, the second most cases documented in a single day during the pandemic. Hospitalizations also remain at an all-time high, with more than 132,000 patients admitted with COVID-19, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
More than 365,000 Americans have died from the virus, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) projects that the death toll will surpass 405,000 by the end of January, potentially reaching as high as 438,000.
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While additional research into the vaccines’ effectiveness against the variants is ongoing, the Pfizer study also found that the vaccine seems to work against 15 other possible virus mutations. The South African variation does have one mutation Pfizer has yet to study, but Dormitzer told the AP that research on that mutation, dubbed E484K, would be analyzed next. Moderna is also conducting research to determine if its shot works against the variants.
Pfizer’s finding isn’t the only positive news in an otherwise grim week. Researchers at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology published a study finding that the human body usually retains a strong immune response to the coronavirus for at least eight months after infection, and possibly much longer. Researchers reviewed blood samples from nearly 200 patients and found that about 90% of them showed lasting, stable immunity.
Together, these analyses indicate that the end of the pandemic is attainable with a more robust vaccine distribution system. Amid widespread issues rolling out the vaccine, only 5.9 million people have been vaccinated thus far, according to the most recent data from the CDC.