It seems like every day we get news that the pandemic is not ending anytime soon. After the first variant, B.1.1.7, was first identified in the United Kingdom, it was then followed by a second variant, rapidly spreading in South Africa, mid-December. It has become the predominant variant in those areas, including Brazil, who had a sudden surge in COVID-19 cases. 

The new strain, 501Y.V2, independently emerged from the B.1.1.7, the U.K variant. But despite that, they both share the same mutations and have a few characteristics in common, including being more infectious. However, there’s no further evidence yet that they cause more severe diseases. 

At the moment, 501Y.V2, the South African variant, has not yet entered U.S territory but, Dr. Anthony Fauci, top infectious disease expert, stated that he would be surprised if the variant is not in the U.S yet. He followed saying that because of international travel, the virus would soon spread throughout the world. 

501Y.V2: What we know about the latest COVID variant

“There is a lot that is not yet known about the 501Y.V2 strain, but there are a few reasons why it is worrying experts. The new variant carries three mutations in key sites in the receptor binding domain of the spike protein, which is the “key” the virus uses to gain entry into cells. Some of these changes, especially a mutation called E484K, have been shown to reduce antibody recognition. In other words, the change could make people’s antibodies less effective at neutralizing the virus. This mutation is gaining attention because it may help the virus slip past immune protection from prior infection, as well as from some of the antibody therapeutics being used in treatment and possibly vaccination, though scientists are still trying to test these hypotheses.” Yahoo News reported. 

Vaccine Effectiveness: Will the current vaccine work against newer COVID variants? 

Scientists are investigating if the significance of these mutations will greatly affect vaccine efficacy and effectiveness. However, they believe that the current mRNA vaccines will prove to be effective against the new variants because those from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna were developed to create antibodies to multiple regions of the virus’s spike protein.

Jacob Glanville, founder and CEO of Centivax, a computational immuno-engineering group that focuses on making antibody therapeutics and vaccines said,  “A single mutation is never enough to get away from a vaccine. When you get vaccinated, your body produces like a thousand different antibodies … so maybe that single mutation might cause you to lose one or two or five of those antibodies. They won’t work as well anymore. They’ll bind weakly and fall off, or they don’t recognize the virus at all, but you’re going to have others that are working just fine.”

“That’s a concern for antibody therapeutics, because if the antibodies are trying to block that interaction, they’re going to be right on the spot where the mutations are,” he added.

Due to the rise in immunity, either because of vaccination or infection, the virus will continue to evolve. But there is nothing to fear as scientists believe that as the virus evolves, humanity will be able to adapt by modifying our vaccines. However, it is easier said than done. 

“They would slightly modify the genetic sequence. So it would be the same vaccine. It would just be slightly different genetic information. It’s literally using RNA, which you can alter, and it’s a very clean, simple molecule, so they can process it relatively quickly.” Glanville told Yahoo News.

There’s no report whether these updated vaccines will undergo a new series of clinical trials but Glanville said the process that has been put in place to update new flu vaccines every year may give us a clue as to how that could work with COVID-19 vaccines.

“There are a series of expedited processes that have been set in place for decades. … Every year [scientists and vaccine developers] say, ‘Listen, the new flu is going to pop up. It’s different enough that we need a new version, but it’s basically the same flu shot. We’re just tweaking it.’ And so that allows them to do this extra-fast approach of being able to estimate what they should probably put in that vaccine to provide people the best possible coverage … but because you’re producing basically the same vaccine, but with some modifications, you don’t have to go through all those phase trials.”