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South African Virologist: Vaccines Can Be ‘Tweaked’ to Handle Coronavirus Variants

A medical staff is reflected in a mirror as she attends to a COVID-19 patient at a special ward at Arwyp Medical Centre, as South Africa is about the reach a milestone of 1 million infections, in Kempton Park, Dec. 25, 2020.

A South African virologist says existing COVID-19 vaccines may not be fully effective against the new coronavirus variant found in the country, but he expressed belief the vaccines can be “tweaked” to combat the variant.

Scientists studying the variant of COVID-19 found in South Africa say that so far, they have no evidence it causes more severe disease or higher death rates. Wolfgang Preiser, a professor at Stellenbosch University in South Africa’s Western Cape province, however, says there is concern the variant is more infectious.

“Seeing our enormous resurgence over the past few weeks, which coincided with the rise of this new virus variant, makes one worry. At this very moment several research groups around the country are trying to find whether it is true that it is more easily transmitted, and if so, how much worse it is,” he said during a university-hosted webinar Wednesday.

Preiser shares the concern that the current vaccines won’t work as well to combat the variant.

“Those vaccines target the spike protein, which is the surface component of the virus,” he said. “So, they basically mimic this and cause the body to form an immune response to that. Now both variants, the UK one and ours, have changes in that spike protein. So, it is right that one needs to worry whether these changes might influence the body’s ability, after vaccination, to neutralize these viral variants.”

Health authorities in Britain, which is currently battling its own COVID-19 variant, are of the opinion that the South African lineage is particularly “dangerous.”

Preiser said it’s too early to proclaim this as fact. He said South African scientists first need to study people who’ve recovered from the variant, and those who’ve received vaccines in local trials, to establish if the vaccines cause their bodies to recognize and thus combat the variant.

“These things are happening at a very rapid pace, so I’m confident that over a few weeks we’ll hopefully know,” he said. “Personally, there’s no reason to panic. I don’t think we need to throw up our arms in despair and say the vaccine is not going to help us. We are not talking of a vaccine totally not working, but it might be that it is somewhat less efficacious against the South African variant than against the others.”

If this is indeed the case, say scientists, it may be necessary to adapt the vaccines.

Preiser said although that’s very expensive, with the latest medical advances sparked by COVID-19, it’s easier to do than it sounds.

“What we are having here are really innovative ways of making vaccines, where you insert a piece of genome into either a carrier virus, which is harmless, or in the form of messenger RNA, into some innovative capsule, which then gets injected,” he said.

He said it doesn’t take long to do this.

“To tweak the genetic information shouldn’t be a major process. That said, it’s not a question of days or weeks; it’s clearly a question of months. And of course, these new, tweaked vaccines would also have to undergo certain forms of clinical trials to make sure they work, and they are fine.”

Many in South Africa say that’s time the country doesn’t have, and its health sector simply can’t handle flood after flood of patients severely ill with the new type of COVID-19.

The country has seen more than 1.1 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 so far, and more than 30,000 deaths.

South Africa has yet to obtain any of the vaccines currently available, and it could be weeks before it concludes negotiations with manufacturers for supplies.