The South African strain of COVID-19 may significantly reduce the protection of antibodies elicited by the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, and it is still obscure how effective the shots will be against the mutation, suggests a study conducted by Pfizer, BioNTech, and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), published on Wednesday.

As part of the research, the companies developed an engineered virus that contained the same mutation previously discovered in the South African strain. The researchers found a two-third drop in the neutralisation power of antibodies after examining how blood samples taken from people who had been inoculated responded to a lab-created virus.

© REUTERS / YUKI IWAMURA
Walgreens Pharmacists prepare Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccines at Crown Heights Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation, a nursing home facility in Brooklyn, New York, U.S., December 22, 2020

Although the study showed that the vaccine was still able to neutralise the virus, Pfizer and BioNTech have recently launched an investigation into how to update the current vaccine, and talks with regulators about developing a more advanced vaccine shot are ongoing. 

Earlier this week, two Canada-based researchers published a letter in the New England Journal of Medicine, where they claimed that the second dose of Pfizer Inc’s COVID-19 vaccine should be delayed until all priority groups are immunised, as the first dose is already very protective against the virus. 

US government infectious diseases expert Dr Anthony Fauci previously said in an interview with MSNBC that developing a vaccine against the South African variant will likely to take months, as the current vaccines may not protect people against it.

The B.1.351 variant of COVID-19 was first discovered in South Africa in December 2020. To date, it has been detected in at least 40 countries. Just like another virus variant found in the UK, it is considered much more contagious and fast-spreading.