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UTMB researchers find Pfizer vaccine effective against new COVID-19 strain

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Key Points

·        In collaboration with Pfizer, vaccine found effective against mutant strain

·        UTMB scientists had anticipated variants of the virus

·        UTMB engineered mutant strain to test Pfizer’s vaccine efficacy

GALVESTON, Texas –A collaborative team from The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and Pfizer has shown that the common mutation N501Y from the newly emerged SRAS-CoV-2 strains does not compromise Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine. This is the first study to investigate if the fast-spreading new virus strains affects the vaccine’s effectiveness. The study is currently available in bioRxiv (https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.01.07.425740).

“The rapidly spreading U.K. and South African strains of SARS-CoV-2 have raised alarms: Do the newly emerged mutations affect vaccine efficacy, therapeutic antibody potency, virus transmission, and disease severity?” said Pei-Yong Shi, professor at the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at UTMB and senior author of the study.

“In this study, we engineered the common mutation from the new strains – N501Y in the spike protein (the viral protein responsible for attaching to and entering cells) – to SARS-CoV-2,” Shi said. “As a continuous collaboration with Pfizer, we used a panel of clinical trial serum specimens to test if this single mutation affects the antibody activity against the virus induced by the vaccine. Our results showed this mutation alone does not compromise the vaccine’s neutralizing activity against the virus, which is good news for the vaccine.”

“The spike N501Y mutation is of particular concern because this mutation increases spike binding to the cellular receptor for infecting cells,” said Xuping Xie, Assistant Professor at UTMB and first author of the study. “Besides this mutation, other mutations, particularly the E484K mutation from the South African strain, which has been previously shown to make the virus resistant to antibody therapy, should also be studied. More importantly, viruses containing the complete set of spike mutations from the new strains should be examined.”

“Besides vaccines and therapeutics, we should use these mutant viruses to investigate the mutational effect on viral transmission and pathogenesis,” said Scott Weaver, Director of the UTMB Institute for Human Infections and Immunity and co-author of the study. “Using COVID-19 animal models, we should quickly test if the newly emerged strains are indeed more transmissible, as indicated by epidemiological results. If this is the case, we should be able to identify which specific mutation(s) is responsible for the enhanced transmission and its mechanism.”

Other authors include Jing Zou, Camila R. Fontes-Garfias, Hongjie Xia, Vineet D. Menachery from UTMB; Kena A. Swanson, Mark Cutler, David Cooper, Philip R. Dormitzer from Pfizer.

To implement this study, the UTMB team received funding from Pfizer, grants from the National Institutes of Health and philanthropic support from the Sealy & Smith Foundation; the Robert J. Kleberg, Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation; the John S. Dunn Foundation; the Amon G. Carter Foundation; the Gillson Longenbaugh Foundation; and the Summerfield G. Roberts Foundation.

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