A new variant of coronavirus has sparked panic and travel bans — but experts say COVID-19 vaccines should still work against it. Here's why.

Boonchai Wedmakawand/Getty ImagesA lab worker preparing a glass slide.
  • A new coronavirus strain has been discovered with 23 mutations.
  • Seventeen of these could be important – affecting the virus’ behaviour – but we don’t know for sure.
  • UK officials are concerned about the mutated virus’ spread and have introduced lockdowns in certain areas. Other countries have imposed travel bans on the UK.
  • Experts, however, say it’s unlikely that the mutations will stop vaccines from working against COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
  • One expert said this was because coronavirus infection – or having the vaccine – caused numerous immune reactions in the body. Some of the mutations in the new variant could affect some of the sites causing immune responses, but probably not all of them, he added.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A new coronavirus strain called VUI 202012/01 — Variant Under Investigation, year 2020, month 12, variant 01 — has been discovered. Its rapid spread has been blamed for sending parts of the UK into lockdown and has caused growing international concern, with multiple countries imposing travel restrictions on the UK.

There have been 23 documented changes to the virus in this particular strain, 17 of which might be important because they could affect the virus’ behaviour. Eight of these alterations are related to the spike protein, the part of the virus that is used to infect cells.

The spike protein is the part of the virus that vaccines from Pfizer and BioNTech; Moderna; and AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford all target to protect people against COVID-19 — the disease caused by the virus.

But experts in the US and the UK have reassured the public that the new variant is unlikely to stop the vaccines from working.

“We don’t have any particular reason to think that immunizing with the present vaccines is going to be less effective against the different variants that are circulating,” said Dr. Adam Finn, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Bristol, in a briefing to reporters on Monday.

He said that scientists at locations such as Porton Down — the UK’s top-secret laboratory where scientists research chemical weapons and deadly diseases — were trying to work out the details of what the mutations mean, with results expected in a few weeks.

“It’s a matter of immediate importance,” Finn said.

In the meantime, here’s what you need to know about the impact of the variant on vaccines.

Virus mutations happen

The more a virus multiplies, the more mistakes it can make when copying itself. That’s why variants are common.

“These things happen,” Dr. Bharat Pankhania, a senior consultant in Communicable Disease Control at the University of Exeter, told Business Insider.

“Some of these will be in our favour — some won’t,” he added.

When it comes to these particular mutations, Pankhania said more time was needed to characterise them.

We know the variant probably doesn’t affect disease severity, but because some of the mutations affect the spike protein, it could make it easier for the virus to get inside human cells, making it more infectious. This hasn’t yet been confirmed.

Pankhania said that preventing infections with measures like social distancing and immunization therefore remained fundamental.

COVID-19 vaccines should still work

Vaccines work by prepping the immune system so that it works more effectively when a certain infection is encountered.

Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine for COVID-19 is a so-called mRNA-type vaccine that targets the spike protein — this means it contains a genetic code that causes the body to produce a spike protein, which prompts the immune system to then mount a response against it. That way, the next time you come across that spike protein, the immune system should be prepared.

This vaccine is being rolled out in the US, the UK, and Europe. The vaccines from Moderna as well as from AstraZeneca with the University of Oxford also target the spike protein.

Pfizer told Business Insider in a statement on Monday that the identification of a new variant of the coronavirus didn’t affect the vaccine’s rollout. Pfizer is monitoring the sequence changes, however, to assess whether immunized people generate an immune response to this new strain.

The boss of BioNTech, Pfizer’s German partner, said Tuesday that he was confident the vaccine would work against the variant.

Dr. Peter Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, said in a briefing on Monday that despite mutations in the spike protein in the variant strain, it’s unlikely to stop vaccines from working. This is because coronavirus infection — or having the vaccine — causes numerous immune reactions in the body. One reason for this is that the spike protein contains multiple sites that all generate a different immune response.

“It’s predicted that some of the mutations that are present in this new variant will affect some of those sites,” Openshaw said. “It doesn’t seem likely that it will affect all.”

6VSB spike protein SARS CoV 25-HT2AR/Wikimedia CommonsAn illustration of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein shown from the side, at left, and top. The protein latches onto human lung cells.

“It’s much more important that we go on vaccinating people against strains that we already know are affected by the vaccine,” Stephen Evans, a professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said at the briefing on Monday.

Now that we have COVID-19 vaccines, it will be easier to develop reformulated versions

The flu vaccine has to be reformulated every year. The same could someday become true for COVID-19 vaccines if many more mutations develop, but scientists wouldn’t have to go back to square one for vaccine development.

“It’s a lot easier than first time round, because you can just substitute the sequence that the vaccines are based on — they don’t have to go through the regulatory process from the beginning,” Finn of the University of Bristol said.

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