Will COVID Vaccines Work on the New Coronavirus Strain in the U.K.?

A new strain of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has been detected in the U.K., prompting concern about its potential effects on coronavirus vaccines. So what do we currently know about this issue?

The new variant, dubbed the "B.1.1.7 lineage" or "VUI–202012/01," was first detected in the southeast of England in September and contains several mutations. U.K. scientists have said that it could be up to 70 percent more transmissible than the original, although it does not appear to cause more severe disease.

Several experts have said there is no evidence so far to suggest that current COVID vaccines will be less effective against the new strain, but scientists are still learning about the variant and it is possible that this picture could change once more data becomes available.

Dr. Julian Tang, a clinical virologist at the University of Leicester in the U.K., said in a statement: "We are not seeing any increased virulence (clinical severity) or any gross changes in the S (spike protein) that will reduce vaccine effectiveness—so far."

Researchers are still trying to understand more about how genetic changes to the coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2, could help it to overcome immunity—whether induced by infection or vaccination.

Martin Hibberd, Professor of Emerging Infectious Disease at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said in a statement: "Hopefully, [the new strain] does not alter the immune response sufficiently to interfere with the vaccine protection. While the consequences of this new strain are still being worked out, it seems prudent to try to reduce its spread around the U.K. and the rest of the world."

The Trump Administration's coronavirus testing czar, Admiral Brett Giroir, told ABC News on Sunday there was no "reason for alarm right now" over the new strain, saying that the Department of Health and Human Services was monitoring the spread of the variant.

In terms of the vaccine, Giroir said: "We don't know that it's more dangerous and, very importantly, we have not seen a single mutation yet that would make it evade the vaccine. I can't say that won't happen in the future, but right now it looks like the vaccine will cover everything that we see."

In a separate interview on Sunday, Dr. Moncef Slaoui, head of the Operation Warp Speed vaccine distribution effort in the U.S., told CNN: "Up to now, I don't think there has been a single variant that would be resistant.

He said: "This particular variant in the U.K., I think, is very unlikely to have escaped the vaccine immunity."

France's Health Minister Olivier Véran told the Europe 1 radio station on Monday that current COVID-19 vaccines should prove effective against the B.1.1.7 virus lineage.

"In theory, there is no reason to think that the vaccine should not be effective," Veran said.

In future, scientists may need to tweak COVID-19 vaccines as the SARS-CoV-2 virus undergoes further genetic mutations. Researchers have to do the same with seasonal flu vaccines in order to keep up with the most recent mutations.

Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine
A National Health Service worker holds up a vial of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Gloucestershire Royal Hospital on December 17, 2020 in Gloucester, central England. Questions have been raised about the effectiveness of vaccines following the emergence of a new strain in the U.K. CHRIS JACKSON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images