Home International UPDATE: Drugmakers rush to test whether vaccines stop coronavirus variant

UPDATE: Drugmakers rush to test whether vaccines stop coronavirus variant


Ugur Sahin, chief executive of Germany’s BioNTech, said there were nine mutations on the virus

File image: Reuters/Dado Ruvic

ZURICH – Drugmakers including BioNTech and Moderna are scrambling to test their Covid-19 vaccines against the new, fast-spreading variant of the virus that is raging in Britain, the latest challenge in the breakneck race to curb the pandemic.

Ugur Sahin, chief executive of Germany’s BioNTech, which with partner Pfizer took less than a year to get a vaccine approved, said on Tuesday he needed another two weeks to know if his shot could stop the mutant variant of the virus.

Moderna expects its vaccine to protect against the variant and is performing more tests in coming weeks to confirm this, the company said in a statement to CNN. Moderna did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The mutation, known as the B.1.1.7 lineage, may be up to 70% more infectious and more of a concern for children. It has sown chaos in Britain, prompting a wave of travel bans that are disrupting trade with Europe and threatening to further isolate the island country.

Sahin said there were nine mutations on the virus.

While he did not believe any were significant enough to skirt the protection afforded by BioNTech’s mRNA vaccine, which was approved by the European Union on Monday, he said another 14 days or so of study and data collection were needed before offering a definitive answer.

“Scientifically it is highly likely that the immune response by this vaccine can also deal with this virus variant,” he said on a call with reporters.

“The vaccine contains more than 1,270 amino acids, and only 9 of them are changed (in the mutant virus). That means that 99% of the protein is still the same.”

Germany’s CureVac said it did not expect the variant to affect the efficacy of its experimental shot, which is based on the same messenger RNA (mRNA) technology used by Pfizer-BioNTech.

It started late stage clinical trials on its vaccine candidate last week and is constantly reviewing variants, which the company said were common as viruses spread.

Even though there were multiple mutations, BioNTech’s Sahin said, most of the sites on the virus that are recognised by the body’s T-cell response were unchanged, and multiple antibody binding sites were also conserved.

mRNA Advantage

In the event that the variant presents vaccine developers with an unexpected challenge, an advantage of mRNA is that scientists can quickly re-engineer genetic material in the shot to match that of the mutated protein, whereas modifying traditional vaccines would require extra steps.

“In principle, the beauty of the mRNA technology is we can directly start to engineer a vaccine which completely mimics this new mutation,” Sahin said.

“We could be able to provide a new vaccine technically within six weeks. Of course, this is not only a technical question. We have to deal with how regulators … would see that.”

Britain’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, said on Saturday that vaccines appeared to be adequate in generating an immune response to the variant of the coronavirus.

The World Health Organization said on Tuesday it would convene a meeting of members to discuss strategies to counter the mutation.