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Pfizer Says Vaccine Can Handle New COVID-19 Variants

vaccine and variants

Ellen Lindner / Verywell

Key Takeaways

  • Two new variants of the COVID-19 vaccine have raised concerns about how effective vaccines will be.
  • Preliminary data suggest that the Pfizer vaccine works against these variants.
  • Moderna also expects that its vaccine will provide protection against the variants.

Scientists are keeping a close eye on two highly infectious variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. New research suggests that the COVID-19 vaccine made by Pfizer-BioNTech is protective against the new strains.

The preliminary results of a study preprint published last week indicated that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is protective against both the U.K. and South African variants. The researchers concluded that the vaccine “had equivalent neutralizing titers” to the existing dominant strain of SARS-CoV-2.

Pfizer's Vaccine

In a statement, Pfizer said that it was “encouraged” by the findings. However, the company noted that “further data are needed to monitor the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine’s effectiveness in preventing COVID-19 caused by new virus variants."

If the virus mutates and the vaccine needs to be updated, the company said it believes that "the flexibility of BioNTech’s proprietary mRNA vaccine platform is well suited to enable an adjustment to the vaccine.”

Moderna's Vaccine

While Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine has not been fully studied against the variants, the company said in a press release in late December that it has “confidence that our vaccine will also be effective at inducing neutralizing antibodies against them.”

The press release further stated: “Based on the data to date, Moderna expects that the vaccine-induced immunity from the Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine would be protective against the variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus recently described in the UK. We will be performing additional tests of the vaccine in the coming weeks to confirm this expectation.”

The COVID-19 Variants

Several COVID-19 variants have formed since the virus originated, but many have been insignificant or died off, Thomas Russo, MD, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Verywell.

Currently, there are two known variants of the COVID-19 virus: the UK variant (B.1.1.7) and the South African variant (501Y.V2).

However, Russo also notes that “both the UK and South African variants appear to be more infectious” than the dominant strain of SARS-CoV-2, grabbing the attention of scientists.

The UK Variant (B.1.1.7)

The UK variant, known as B.1.1.7, features a mutation in the spike protein, where the amino acid asparagine has been replaced with tyrosine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Russo says that while there are other mutations with B.1.1.7, this particular one seems to make the variant more infectious than previously detected strains.

B.1.1.7 has been detected in several countries around the world and at least 11 states in the U.S., including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas, per CDC data.

The South African Variant (501Y.V2)

The South African variant, known as 501Y.V2, has been detected in Zambia, Finland, the UK, Australia, Switzerland, Japan, and South Korea, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The CDC says that this particular variant, which was first detected in South Africa, has “multiple mutations" in the spike protein."

How the Current COVID-19 Vaccines Work

Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna both used a newer technology called messenger RNA (mRNA) to create their vaccines.

The mRNA vaccines encode part of the spike protein that's found on the surface of SARS-CoV-2. The mRNA vaccines contain pieces of the encoded protein from SARs-CoV-2 that your body mounts an immune response to. When this happens, your body develops antibodies to SARs-CoV-2. The protein and the mRNA are eliminated from your body, but the antibodies remain.

Will the COVID-19 Vaccines Work Against Future Variants?

“It is full steam ahead for both vaccines,” Richard Watkins, MD, an infectious disease physician and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Verywell.

It's likely that more vaccines will be introduced in the next few months. Watkins says that the new additions are expected to have similar efficacy against COVID-19, giving scientists even more tools to fight the virus.

As for the COVID-19 variants, Russo says “Don’t panic, keep wearing your mask, and keep practicing social distancing.”

What This Means For You

If you are worried that the COVID-19 vaccines available will not protect you against the new, more infectious strains of the virus, know that early data have suggested that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is effective.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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