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VACCINE

Germany’s BioNTech says vaccine works against new Covid-19 strains

German company BioNTech said Friday a preliminary study shows that its vaccine works against a key mutation in coronavirus variants uncovered in Britain and South Africa which experts have said is more contagious than normal coronavirus strains.

Germany's BioNTech says vaccine works against new Covid-19 strains
The coronavirus vaccine at a hospital in Dresden. Photo: DPA

Tests have shown that “antibodies from people who have received the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine effectively neutralise SARS-CoV-2 with a key mutation that is also found in two highly transmissible strains,” said the German company of the vaccine it developed with US group Pfizer.

The B117 coronavirus, which emerged in southeast Britain late last year, has shown to be significantly more contagious — between 40-70 percent — than normal variants of the virus.

Pfizer/BioNTech's coronavirus vaccine, which is being rolled out around the world, relies on the body's production of a particular part of the virus — the spike protein — which the immune system then learns to kill.

Because the mutation in the British variant and another South African variant directly affects the virus' spike protein, there had been fears that it would render the vaccine ineffective against the mutant versions.

READ ALSO: Germany's BioNTech racing to ramp up vaccine production

But BioNTech said the research carried out by Pfizer and the University of Texas Medical Branch “indicates that the key N501Y mutation, which is found in the emerging UK and South Africa variants, does not create resistance to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine induced immune responses”.

Authors of the study itself said however the findings were limited as the mutated variant tested “does not include the full set of spike mutations found on the rapidly spreading strains in the UK or South Africa.”

'Good news'

The research has yet to be peer-reviewed, but experts expressed cautious optimism at the findings.

“This is good news, mainly because it is not bad news,” said Stephen Evans, professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

“Had the opposite result been found, that the vaccine did not seem to have efficacy against the variation of the virus studied, that would have been bad and very concerning.”

Last month German developer BioNTech said it had the technology to produce a new vaccine against new mutated Sars-CoV-2 strains in as little as six weeks.

Eleanor Riley, professor of Immunology and Infectious Disease at the University of Edinburgh, said there was cause for optimism that mRNA vaccines could prove effective against numerous mutated variants.

“There will be other new mutants and we will need to monitor the situation carefully by repeating this type of study on new variants as they appear,” she said.

“There is a limit to the number of mutations the virus can accumulate and still be able to bind to the (human cell) receptor.”

The EU on Friday said it had struck a deal to double its supply of Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine to a total of 600 million doses.

Member comments

  1. “I don’t believe we have the evidence on any of the vaccines to be confident that it’s going to prevent people from actually getting the infection and therefore being able to pass it on,” WHO chief scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan said.

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COVID-19

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

High profile German virologist Christian Drosten believes Germany will see a severe spike in Covid infections after summer, and that the pandemic will not become endemic this year.

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

Drosten previously said that Germany would probably be able to declare the end of the pandemic this year.

But in an interview with Spiegel, Drosten said he had reevaluated his opinion. 

“When the Alpha variant came, it was very surprising for me. When Delta appeared I was sceptical at first, then with Omicron we had to reorient ourselves again. And since January there have already been new Omicron subtypes.

“So I would actually like to correct myself: I no longer believe that by the end of the year we will have the impression that the pandemic is over.”

READ ALSO: End is in sight for pandemic in Germany, says virologist 

Drosten also said that Germany will not see a largely Covid-free summer, which has been the case in previous years, and a further increase in infections in autumn. 

“We are actually already seeing an exponential increase in case numbers again,” Drosten said.

“The BA.5 variant (of Omicron) is simply very transmissible, and people are losing their transmission protection from the last vaccination at the same time.”

In other countries, he said, when the number of cases become high, hospitalisation and death rates also rise again. “Unfortunately, that will also be the case here,” said Drosten, but added: “Overall, however, far fewer people will become seriously ill and die than in 2021.”

Drosten said he expected many more infections from September.

“I hope that the school holidays will dampen the increase in cases somewhat. But from September, I fear we will have very high case numbers,” the head of the virology department at Berlin’s Charité hospital told Spiegel.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister lays out autumn Covid plan

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021.

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

If the government does not take any action, he predicted there would be a lot of sick leave across all industries. “That will become a real problem,” he said.

Drosten said he did not expect overcrowded intensive care units in Germany.

But the new BA.5 sub-variant, which is becoming dominant in Germany, may affect people more strongly. 

“The wheel is turning more towards disease again,” said Drosten. It is not true that a virus automatically becomes more and more harmless in the course of evolution. “That makes me even more worried about the autumn,” he said.

Drosten recommends wearing masks indoors during the colder months, saying it is “the least painful” measure.

If, in addition, “up to 40 million people could be immunised or given a booster vaccination” before winter, for example by urgently calling for company vaccinations, that would “really make a difference”, Drosten said.

In the long term, he said it’s inevitable that people will become infected with coronavirus.

He said the population immunity due to vaccinations and infections will at some point be so strong that the virus will become less important. “Then we will be in an endemic state,” said Drosten. In the worst case, however, this could take “several more winters”.

However, Drosten warned against people trying to deliberately infect themselves with Covid, saying getting the infection in summer doesn’t mean people will be protected in winter. 

Drosten himself said he has not yet contracted Covid-19.

“So far, I guess I’ve just been lucky,” he said. “I rarely put myself in risky situations, but I’m not overly cautious either.”

‘Pandemic depends on behaviour’

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI)’s latest weekly report, more outbreaks are occurring in care homes, and the number of patients in intensive care units is slightly rising as infections go up. 

The institute said there had been a 23 percent increase in the 7-day incidence compared to the previous week. On Friday the 7-day incidence stood at 618.2 infections per 100,000 people. There were 108,190 infections within the latest 24 hour period and 90 deaths. 

“The further course of the pandemic depends not only on the occurrence of new virus variants and the uptake of vaccinations on offer, it also depends to a large extent on the behaviour of the population,” said the RKI.

According to the DIVI intensive care register, the number of Covid-19 patients in ICUs had increased to 810 on Thursday this week, from about 600 at the beginning of the month.

However, that number is still low compared to previous Covid peaks when thousands of people were in intensive care in Germany. 

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