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Scientists are concerned vaccines won’t “be able to deal” with a new strain of the coronavirus from South Africa.
New research suggests the Pfizer and BioNTech jab appears to protect against a mutation in two coronavirus variants – one of which originated in the UK and the other in South Africa – that are rapidly spreading among Brits.
However, one of the mutations in the South Africa strain, named E484K, has not yet been studied.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told BBC Breakfast: “There’s this new variant which you may have heard about called the South African variant, which is causing great concern with the scientists.
“They’re not sure whether, for example, the vaccine will be able to deal with it in the first place.
“And we’re very very keen to try to keep that out.”
Speaking to LBC, he added: “It may be that the vaccine doesn’t respond in the same way, or doesn’t work in quite the same way.
“And if that were the case, of course, it would be a tragedy to allow that into the country.”
In the new study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, blood samples were taken from 20 people who received the Pfizer vaccine.
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Laboratory studies found that the samples had neutralising levels of antibodies which appeared to work against a mutation called N501Y in the new strains.
Further studies are planned on the other mutations.
Daniel Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London, said: "This is indeed an important finding to calm any concerns about lack of vaccine coverage for the variants."
He added that "neutralisation of the variant looks excellent from this study".
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Stephen Evans, professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, commented: "This is good news, mainly because it is not bad news.
"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.
"So, yes this is good news, but it does not yet give us total confidence that the Pfizer (or other) vaccines will definitely give protection.
"We need to test this in clinical experience and the data on this should be available in the UK within the next few weeks."
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Earlier this week, the UK's chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said it may be that the new strains reduce the efficacy of vaccines but that more studies were needed.
He told a No10 press conference: "It's worth remembering that when a vaccine is given you don't just make one antibody against one bit, you make lots of antibodies against lots of different bits.
“So it's unlikely that all of that will be escaped by any mutations – but we don't know yet.
"At the moment, you'd say the most likely thing is that this wouldn't abolish vaccine effect. It may have some overall effect on efficacy but we don't know."
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