The team worked on the first completed study investigating whether the new virus strain affects the vaccine’s efficacy, according to the media release. Harris County Public Health conducted contact tracing last week for a resident who tested positive for the new COVID-19 variant; that case was the first in the county and in the state, officials said Jan. 7.
The UK mutation, known as N501Y, is of particular concern because this mutation increases spike binding to the cellular receptor for infecting cells, said Xuping Xie, an assistant professor at UTMB and the first author of the study, in the release. While the vaccine was determined to still be effective against this particular variant, Xie added that more studies are necessary.
“Besides this mutation, other mutations—particularly the E484K mutation from the South African strain, which has been previously shown to make the virus resistant to antibody therapy—should also be studied,” Xie said in the release. “More importantly, viruses containing the complete set of spike mutations from the new strains should be examined.”
The rapidly spreading strains of the virus from the U.K. and South Africa have raised alarms related to vaccine efficacy, therapeutic antibody potency, virus transmission and illness severity, said Pei-Yong Shi, a professor at the UTMB Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and the senior author of the study, in the release.
The study involved using a panel of clinical trial serum specimens to test if the N501Y mutation affects the vaccine-induced antibody activity against the virus, Shi added. Results showed the mutation alone does not compromise the vaccine’s neutralizing activity against the virus, which is good news for the vaccine, he said in the release.
Researchers should use the mutant viruses to investigate the effects of mutations on viral transmission and disease development, said Scott Weaver, the director of the UTMB Institute for Human Infections and Immunity and a co-author of the study.
“Using COVID-19 animal models, we should quickly test if the newly emerged strains are indeed more transmissible, as indicated by epidemiological results,” he said in the release. “If this is the case, we should be able to identify which specific [mutation or mutations are responsible] for the enhanced transmission and its mechanism.”
In total, six UTMB researchers and four Pfizer researchers collaborated on the study, which received funding from Pfizer, grants from the National Institutes of Health and philanthropic support from six different foundations, per the release. The full text of the study can be found here.