Washington U finds vaccine not as effective against variants

Researchers in St. Louis find it takes more anti-bodies to neutralize latest variants.

SAINT LOUIS, MISSOURI (KMOX) - It's not the findings researchers were hoping for at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Currently approved coronavirus vaccines are not as effective against the new variants of SARS-CoV-2, finding they take more anti-bodies to neutralize the virus. The report from the school tested the drugs against the three new, faster-spreading variants first identified in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil.

Laboratory test results were published in Nature Medicine magazine of their examination of the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. These vaccines are unusual in that they target the spike protein of coronavirus, not the bug itself. By producing antibodies against this protein, it disables the virus from entering human cells - specifically, the respiratory tract, as well as heart and lung tissues. This strategy presumed the virus would mutate, but the spikes would take longer to change, if they ever did at all. Apparently, they have. These spikes interact with something called Angiotensin Converting Enzymes (ACE-2) on the surface of critical body cells, acting as a key to enter. Take away the keys, and the virus can do no harm.

From the Washington University news release: “We’re concerned that people whom we’d expect to have a protective level of antibodies because they have had COVID-19 or been vaccinated against it, might not be protected against the new variants,” said senior author Michael S. Diamond, MD, PhD, the Herbert S. Gasser Professor of Medicine. “There’s wide variation in how much antibody a person produces in response to vaccination or natural infection. Some people produce very high levels, and they would still likely be protected against the new, worrisome variants. But some people, especially older and immunocompromised people, may not make such high levels of antibodies. If the level of antibody needed for protection goes up tenfold, as our data indicate it does, they may not have enough. The concern is that the people who need protection the most are the ones least likely to have it.”

Nonetheless, less protection is better than none. However, vaccine developers already have been working on how to aim at this moving target. The real concern is not just that current vaccines may later prove not effective enough, but that a new vaccination would be required as these new variants become predominant in the pandemic.

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