Sun. May 9th, 2021

A nurse prepares a syringe with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine for a worker of the New York City Fire Department Bureau of Emergency Medical Services in New York City, December 23, 2020. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

The week begins with some good news, as Moderna says its vaccine works against the U.K. strain and the South African strain:

Vaccination with the Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine produced neutralizing titers against all key emerging variants tested, including B.1.1.7 and B.1.351, first identified in the UK and Republic of South Africa, respectively. The study showed no significant impact on neutralizing titers against the B.1.1.7 variant relative to prior variants. A six-fold reduction in neutralizing titers was observed with the B.1.351 variant relative to prior variants. Despite this reduction, neutralizing titer levels with B.1.351 remain above levels that are expected to be protective. This study was conducted in collaboration with the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health. The manuscript has been submitted as a preprint to bioRxiv and will be submitted for peer-reviewed publication.

Last week, in his press briefing at the White House, Dr. Anthony Fauci pointed out that a new strain is unlikely to be completely resistant to the current vaccines.

What we likely will be seeing is a diminution — more South Africa than U.K. — U.K. — is that diminution in what would be the efficacy of the vaccine-induced antibodies.

Now, that does not mean that the vaccines will not be effective, and let me explain why. There’s a thing called a “cushion effect.” So, if you have a vaccine, like the Moderna and the Pfizer vaccine, that can suppress the virus at a dilution, let’s say, of 1 to 1,000, and the mutant influences it by bringing it down to maybe 1 to 800, or something like that, you’re still well above the line of not being effective.  So there’s that “cushion” that even though it’s diminished somewhat, it still is effective. That’s what we’re seeing, both certainly with the UK, which is very minimal effect. We’re following very carefully the one in South Africa, which is a little bit more concerning, but nonetheless, not something that we don’t think that we can handle.

What is the message?  Because someone can say, “Now, wait a minute — if you have the possibility that the vaccines are diminishing in their impact, why are we vaccinating people?” No. It is all the more reason why we should be vaccinating as many people as you possibly can.  Because as long as the virus is out there replicating — viruses don’t mutate unless they replicate. And if you can suppress that by a very good vaccine campaign, then you could actually avoid this deleterious effect that you might get from the mutations.

Bottom line: We’re paying very close attention to it. There are alternative plans if we ever have to modify the vaccine. That is not something that is a very onerous thing. We can do that given the platforms we have. But right now, from the reports we have — literally, as of today — it appears that the vaccines will still be effective against them, with the caveat in mind you want to pay close attention to it.

One less thing to worry about . . . for now.

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