New Study Using Live Virus Explores Whether Pfizer-BioNTech Vaccine Protects Against Variants

When new variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, were discovered to be circulating around the world, the first question for many was whether they would present a serious problem for nascent vaccination programs against Covid-19. While the answer still eludes us, study by study researchers are firming up their notions of what the future, now that it involves a virus that evolves far more rapidly than previously understood, will hold.

This early on, the general consensus is mixed. Many are optimistic that the technologies at our disposal—the same that did, after all, miraculously produce safe and efficacious vaccines in less than a year—can adapt and ultimately prevail over the new variants, which have been found to be more transmissible, immune-evasive, and in some cases more virulent than their predecessors. But several experts are also expressing caution insofar as the current generation of vaccines are concerned, in part due to recent reports that antibodies, whether collected from recovered Covid-19 patients or people recently immunized, are less effective at neutralizing artificially mutated versions of SARS-CoV-2. Moving forward, the trick will be striking a balance between these two observations: acknowledging and celebrating the good news that comes our way, but remaining vigilant and ready to take action should viral variation have longer-term consequences on our ability to contain the pandemic this year and for years to come.

A correspondence published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine gives us another reason to be of both minds. It details a study of 20 samples of serum that were taken from 15 participants who received two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, then exposed to five viruses carrying mutations seen in the B.1.1.7, B.1.351, and P.1 lineages of the virus—variants that originated in Britain, South Africa, and Brazil, respectively. That they used live viruses is significant, since previous research relied instead on pseudotyped viruses created in-lab by decorating the envelope of other viruses with SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins.

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Originally published on Forbes (March 11, 2021)

© William A. Haseltine, PhD. All Rights Reserved.