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January 20, 2021

Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine protects against U.K. variant, research shows

Scientists tested the vaccine against all the mutations identified in the variant

The COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech protects against the U.K. coronavirus variant just as effectively as it protects against the predominant form of the virus, according to new research led by the two companies. 

The companies' study has not been peer-reviewed, but it adds to the encouraging data that suggests the currently available COVID-19 vaccines still work against the B.1.1.7. variant.

An earlier preliminary study found that Pfizer's vaccine is effective against a key mutation in both the U.K. and South Africa variants.

The mutation, called N501Y, is an alteration to the spike protein the virus uses to enter cells. Infectious disease experts say this most likely explains why these variants appear to be more contagious.

For the new study, lab researchers developed pseudoviruses that contain all of the mutations identified in the U.K. variant. Pseudoviruses contain only fragments of host-cell DNA and are less dangerous to work with than live pathogens. The researchers then tested blood taken from 16 people who had been inoculated against the virus.

In the lab experiment, the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine was able to neutralize the variant as effectively as it does earlier forms of the virus, the researchers said.

Moderna also is conducting similar testing for its COVID-19 vaccine.

Though it is possible that currently available vaccines may not respond as well to all emerging variants, they are thought to induce a strong enough immune response to still offer protection even with a slight drop in potency, infectious disease experts say.

If the coronavirus changes in significant ways that affect its behavior, immunizations may need to be updated.

There have been 122 cases of the B.1.1.7. variant confirmed in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The identified cases span 20 states, including Pennsylvania.

Experts worry that variants like this could worsen the pandemic before enough people are vaccinated to establish herd immunity. On Tuesday, Philadelphia expanded COVID-19 vaccination eligibility to essential workers, seniors over the age of 75 and people with certain high risk conditions.

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