What We Know About COVID Vaccines and the South Africa Variant Found in New York

Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, has confirmed that a COVID strain known informally as the "South Africa variant" has made its way to the state.

The variant, also known as B.1.351 or 501.V2, has led to concern amongst scientists that it may pose some level of resistance to current vaccines.

In addition, the South Africa strain also appears to spread more easily than other variants.

In a press conference yesterday, Cuomo warned New Yorkers it is "more important than ever" to follow COVID guidelines, including wearing masks, staying socially distant and washing hands.

He said: "We are in a race right now, between our ability to vaccinate and these variants which are actively trying to proliferate, and we will only win that race if we stay smart and disciplined."

The case was found in a resident from New York's Long Island region.

The Vaccine Situation

Part of the current concern surrounding the South Africa variant is the risk it may pose to people who have already been vaccinated.

Last Wednesday, a laboratory study suggested it was not clear whether the Pfizer vaccine—one of the three main jabs currently in use in the western world—is effective against the South Africa variant.

The study, which involved scientists from Pfizer, BioNTech, and the University of Texas, found the variant may reduce the protective antibodies that are produced by the immune system following the Pfizer vaccine.

The scientists did this by engineering the mutations from the South Africa variant into an earlier version of COVID they had isolated in January 2020.

They then subjected the engineered virus to the Pfizer vaccine, and found it was "weaker by approximately two-thirds" in neutralizing the variant compared to another version of COVID that was common in previous US trials.

The researchers found the Pfizer vaccine was still able to neutralize the engineered virus, but said it was "unclear" what the real-world effect would be if neutralization was cut by two-thirds outside of the lab.

However, Scott Weaver, director of the Institute for Human Infection and Immunity at the University of Texas Medical Branch and an author of the study, told CNN the two-thirds neutralization reduction "is fairly small compared to variations in neutralization levels generated by vaccines against other viruses that have even more variability in their protein sequences than SARS-CoV-2."

Meanwhile, a January study by Moderna, another main vaccine producer, also found a reduction in how well its own offering worked against an engineered South Africa variant.

However, the company claimed "the two-dose regimen of the Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine at the 100 µg dose is expected to be protective against emerging strains detected to date," while CEO Stéphane Bancel said the company was "encouraged" by the results.

Concerns were also raised about the efficacy of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine against the South Africa variant earlier this month after a study in 2,000 young volunteers suggested it did not protect against milder forms of the variant.

Professor Shabir Madhi from the University of Witwatersrand, who led the South Africa-based trial, told BBC Radio 4: "There's still some hope that the AstraZeneca vaccine might well perform as well as the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in a different age demographic that are at highest risk of severe disease."

Man walking through New York
A man wearing a mask walks the Brooklyn Bridge in the midst of the COVID outbreak, March 2020 in New York City. The South Africa variant has been discovered in the state, and residents warned to be extra vigilant. (Photo by Victor J. Blue/Getty Images) Victor J. Blue/Getty Images

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