February 25, 2021

As new coronavirus variants spread widely, drugmakers are scrambling to update their vaccines

Daily Briefing

    Researchers say they've identified a new coronavirus variant in New York City that could be less susceptible to current vaccines, adding to worries that new variants could threaten progress against the pandemic. In response, drugmakers are scrambling to tweak and test their Covid-19 vaccines against new variants of the virus.

    Researchers identify New York variant that could be less susceptible to current vaccines

    According to the New York Times, researchers first detected the new variant circulating in New York City, called B.1.526, among coronavirus samples collected in November 2020. Now, two new studies, which haven't yet been peer-reviewed, show the B.1.526 variant has spread widely and may be less susceptible to current Covid-19 vaccines.

    For the first study, which was published preprint Tuesday on bioRxiv, Anthony West, a computational biologist at Caltech, and colleagues scanned hundreds of thousands of viral genetic sequences in a database called GISAID to identify coronavirus mutations in New York. The researchers discovered two distinct coronavirus variants that are currently grouped together as the B.1.526 variant.

    "There was a pattern that was recurring, and a group of isolates concentrated in the New York region that I hadn't seen," West said.

    According to the study, one version of the B.1.526 variant contains a mutation called E484K, which scientists also have identified in variants that researchers believe originated in Brazil and South Africa. Research suggests that the mutation helps the coronavirus partially evade immunity induced by natural coronavirus infections and Covid-19 vaccines.

    The other version of B.1.526 contains a mutation called S477N, which may affect how tightly the coronavirus attaches to human cells, the Times reports.

    The researchers found that the number of coronavirus cases involving the B.1.526 variant increased from late November 2020 to February 2021. According to West, the variant accounted for about 27% of New York City's coronavirus genomes sequenced and recorded in GISAID by mid-February.

    A separate study conducted by researchers at Columbia University similarly found evidence of the B.1.526 variant circulating widely throughout New York. For the study, researchers screened 1,142 coronavirus samples from patients at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center. They found that, by mid-February, 12% of patients had been infected with the B.1.526 variant containing the E484K mutation, and that cases involving the variant were scattered throughout the New York metropolitan area.

    "We see cases in Westchester, in the Bronx and Queens, the lower part of Manhattan and in Brooklyn," David Ho, director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center, said. "So, it seems to be widespread. It's not a single outbreak."

    According to the researchers, patients infected with the B.1.526 variant containing the E484K mutation were more likely to have been hospitalized for Covid-19 and were, on average, about six years older than patients infected with other variants.

    The researchers also identified six cases of the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the United Kingdom, which research suggests is more transmissible than earlier variants, less susceptible to current vaccines, and potentially more deadly

    They also identified two cases of the P.1 variant first identified in Brazil and one case of the B.1.351 variant first identified in South Africa. Those two variants have the E484K mutation, as well, and research suggests they are more transmissible than earlier variants and less susceptible to current Covid-19 vaccines. According to Ho, cases of the P.1 and B.1.351 variants had not been previously reported in New York City.

    Overall, CDC data shows that the United States as of Tuesday reported 1,932 total cases of the B.1.1.7, B.1.351, and P.1 variants across 45 U.S. states and territories, including 1,881 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant, 46 cases of the B.1.351 variant, and five cases of the P.1 variant.

    'It's not particularly happy news'

    Some experts say the findings on the New York variant are worrisome, particularly when coupled with the recent identification of a more transmissible variant that emerged and is circulating in California, the Times reports.

    "Given the involvement of E484K or S477N, combined with the fact that the New York region has a lot of standing immunity from the spring wave, [the B.1.526 variant] is definitely one to watch," said Kristian Andersen, a virologist at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego who was not involved in the new research.

    Michel Nussenzweig, an immunologist at Rockefeller University who was not involved in the research, said, "It's not particularly happy news. But just knowing about it is good because then we can perhaps do something about it."

    Other experts were a bit more optimistic, saying that Covid-19 vaccines likely will still work against the new variants to some degree and may be modified to target the variants.

    "These things are a little bit less well controlled by vaccine, but it's not orders of magnitude down, which would terrify me," Andrew Read, an evolutionary microbiologist at Penn State University, said.

    According to Read, vaccines can be tweaked as the coronavirus evolves, so "in the scheme of things, [the variants] aren't huge worries compared to not having a vaccine."

    Overall, Read said, "[T]he glass is three-quarters full, compared to where we were last year."

    Drugmakers tweak, prepare to test Covid-19 vaccines against new variants

    To that end, many drugmakers—including Moderna, Pfizer and BioNTech, and Johnson & Johnson—are working to tweak their Covid-19 vaccines or develop booster shots to better target emerging variants.

    On Wednesday, Moderna announced it had shipped an initial batch of vaccine doses designed to better protect against the B.1.351 variant to NIH to begin the first human study evaluating the new vaccine, called mRNA-1273.351.

    During an interview, Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said the company believes there are three potential approaches it could use to boost its existing vaccine. The first approach would involve adding an additional shot to Moderna's current two-dose vaccine regimen. The second would be to provide the new vaccine as a "booster" to people who have already received two doses of the original inoculation, and the final approach would be to create a single "multivalent" booster shot that combines Moderna's original vaccine with a version targeting the variant.

    Pfizer and BioNTech similarly have announced plans to evaluate vaccines to target new coronavirus variants, and the companies also plan to test whether providing people with three doses of their Covid-19 vaccine instead of two could provide better protection against the variants.

    During an interview, Mikael Dolsten, Pfizer's chief scientific officer, said Pfizer and BioNTech have submitted information about a new vaccine construct targeting the B.1.351 variant to FDA, and discussions about studies on the new construct are in their final stages.

    Experts fear variants could harm progress in controlling pandemic

    Still, experts fear new variants could threaten progress in controlling the coronavirus pandemic, particularly in the United States, which has seen improvements in recent weeks. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said new, more-transmissible coronavirus variants "stand to reverse" the country's progress and could "undermine all of our efforts."

    According to data compiled by the Times, U.S. officials on Wednesday reported about 70,768 new cases of the novel coronavirus. As of Thursday morning, officials had reported about 28.3 million cases since the United States' epidemic began.

    According to the Times, the United States' average daily number of newly reported coronavirus cases over the past week was 68,123—down by 35% when compared with the average from two weeks ago. However, the Times' data showed that, as of Thursday morning, the rates of newly reported coronavirus cases were "staying high" in Colorado, New Hampshire, New York, South Dakota, and Vermont, which have each reported a daily average of at least 15 newly reported cases per 100,000 people over the past week.

    According to the data, rates of newly reported coronavirus cases were "staying low" or declining from previously higher rates in the remaining U.S. states.

    Meanwhile, U.S. hospitalizations for Covid-19 have reached their lowest level since November 2020. According to data from The Atlantic's COVID Tracking Project, there were 54,118 Americans with Covid-19 hospitalized for treatment on Wednesday, including 11,026 who were receiving care in an ICU and 3,685 who were on a ventilator.

    According to data from the Times, U.S. officials reported about 3,210 new deaths linked to the coronavirus on Wednesday. As of Thursday morning, officials had reported about 505,642 U.S. deaths linked to the virus since the country's epidemic began.

    (Mandavilli, New York Times, 2/24; Higgins-Dunn, CNBC, 2/24; Loftus, Wall Street Journal, 2/24; Garde/Herper, STAT News, 2/24; Herper, STAT News, 2/25; Moderna release, 2/24; CDC variants data, updated 2/23; New York Times, 2/25; "COVID Tracking Project," The Atlantic, accessed 2/25).

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