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Will coronavirus vaccines work against new variants? Experts weigh in

Experts and vaccine developers are optimistic, but some caution that it's too early to be certain that vaccines will work against new COVID-19 variants.
/ Source: TODAY

As the vaccine distribution process continues around the United States, cases of coronavirus variants have raised alarm. While much is still unknown about the strains, some of the variants appear to be more transmissible.

Despite this, experts say they expect the Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines to work against the mutations. While all cautioned that it's too early to tell for sure, promising data from the various companies seem to show that the vaccines will have at least some effect against the new variants.

"I think this is going to be an evolving situation ... But I do think the news so far is positive, but we don't know everything that we need to know yet," said Dr. Colleen Kelley, an associate professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia who is involved with the Moderna and Novavax vaccine clinical trials. "... It's too early to say completely, absolutely, that the vaccines are going to be effective against the variants that we're hearing about, but I would say this early data looks good."

Last week, Moderna said that their existing vaccine, which was given emergency approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in December, was effective against the United Kingdom variant of the virus. Though an early study found the vaccine was less effective against the South African strain of the virus. The company said they would be tweaking its vaccine to make it more effective against different strains. The tweaked version of the vaccine might be used as a booster shot, according to the company.

In a laboratory study, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which was given emergency authorization by the FDA in December, appeared to only be slightly less effective when tested against the South African variant. However, the study has not yet been peer-reviewed and did not look at the full set of changes found in the variant, only looking at three key mutations, according to Reuters.

Recently announced phase 3 trial results for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, developed in partnership with Janssen Pharmaceuticals, found that the vaccine was effective against most strains of the coronavirus. It was 72% effective in preventing moderate to severe disease in the United States, 66% effective globally and 57% effective in South Africa. However, experts say that even those numbers, which may seem low compared to the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech candidates, are a good sign.

"Johnson & Johnson was testing its vaccine in South Africa while the variant there was happening," said Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of Brown University's School of Public Health in Providence, during an appearance on TODAY, noting that Moderna and Pfizer had not tested their vaccines in the same situations. "I think that's one reason why the Johnson & Johnson numbers are a little lower ... All the data we have right now says that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is terrific at preventing hospitalizations and death."

Dr. Chris Beyrer, a professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, said that the issue of vaccines and variants is an area with "intense research."

"There are at least 10 major laboratories, worldwide, that are working to try and answer this question," he said. "... What we do know is that the vaccines generate a quite broad immunity, and it's probably broader than the immunity you get from natural infection, where you really only make antibodies against the specific variant that you were exposed to. We think, at least for now, that the vaccines are going to continue to be effective against these new strains."

While the current news is positive, experts emphasized that it is important to get vaccinated, which can help prevent more variants from developing.

"We will continue to see new variants emerge as we see the pandemic progressing, because variants emerge when viral replication is out of control, and we have out-of-control viral replication right now," said Kelley. "We likely have variants transmitting in the United States that were created here and we just don't know it yet. Scientists are working hard to do the genetic sequencing that will be necessary to detect these variants (quickly)."

Dr. David Buchholz, the senior founding medical director for primary care at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York, agreed that it's likely that more variants will emerge as the pandemic continues.

"It's very possible (that we'll) start to have a lot more mutations, so it's even more reason to get vaccinated, to reduce the risk of ongoing mutations," said Bucholz, who advised continuing to take other precautions like masking, social distancing and washing your hands.

Jha said that these variants also prove that it's important to focus on a "global strategy" when it comes to fighting COVID-19.

"I want to be done with this, and the way that we're going to be done with this is to stop outbreaks everywhere," Jha said. "The world is interconnected, we live on one planet, and we know that a variant that arises anywhere can threaten people everywhere. We've got to have a global strategy, not just an American strategy."