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Study provides more evidence that U.K. COVID variant won't "escape" Pfizer's vaccine

U.S. coronavirus death toll surpasses 400,000
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New research published on Tuesday by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech provides further evidence that their COVID-19 vaccine should be effective against the highly-infectious coronavirus variant first detected in the U.K. 

The study published Tuesday on the biorxiv.org website, which hasn't yet been peer-reviewed, relies laboratory testing of a small number of blood samples from people inoculated with the Pfizer vaccine against a synthetic version of the new virus strain.

While only 16 blood samples were tested, the study's authors, including BioNTech's two co-founders, said the new data on the antibodies produced by their vaccine, combined with other immunity-inducing factors of the drug, "make it unlikely that the B.1.1.7 lineage [U.K. variant] will escape" the protection it offers.

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While outside researchers have yet to verify their findings, it does provide more hope that the variant — thought to be at least 50% easier to pass from an infected person to a new human host — can be controlled with the vaccine, which is already widely used in the U.S. and around the world.

The latest lab results come after similar positive findings from a study carried out by Pfizer and the University of Texas that were published earlier this month.

Pfizer called those initial results "a very reassuring finding" that one particular change in the U.K. variant — the N501Y mutation, which is also seen in a strain from South Africa — would not make the new versions of the bug resistant to its vaccine.

But as the scientists noted in the study published this week, "the question remained whether a virus with the full set of mutations in the lineage B.1.1.7 [U.K. variant] spike would be neutralized efficiently" by the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

So for its study BioNTech went further, manufacturing a "pseudovirus" in the lab that much more closely mimics the full range of mutations in the U.K. strain.

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They tested 16 blood samples from people who had both shots of the Pfizer vaccine against their synthetic U.K. variant, along with a replica they created of the original strain from Wuhan, China, and found "no biologically significant difference in neutralization activity."

It doesn't amount yet to definitive proof that the Pfizer vaccine will have the same 95% efficacy against the British strain as it did against the original virus in large-scale human trials. Real-time studies are underway to monitor the efficacy of Pfizer's vaccine, and the others certified for use in the U.S. and Europe, against the U.K. and South African variants, and initial data could come within a couple weeks.

But with the U.K. variant fueling mounting concern in the U.S., Europe and around the world, given how fast it spreads and that it's already popped up in about 60 countries, it is more reason to hope that the weapons already developed to turn the tide in the pandemic will remain useful.

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