COVID-19 Antibodies & Vaccines May Be Less Effective Against Some Fast-Spreading Variants

    By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science & Technology

    Evidence is growing about the fast-spreading coronavirus variants. A Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis researcher discovered that some COVID-19 variants can evade the immune response triggered by the COVID-19 vaccines and previous infection.

    “It’s my suspicion that it will be quite variable with the variants, that some people will be completely protected, others will have partial protection and some may lose protection because they didn’t have a good enough response to start with,” said senior author Michael Diamond, professor of molecular microbiology, and of pathology and immunology. The virus that causes COVID-19, known as SARS-CoV-2, uses a protein called spike to latch onto and get inside cells.

    “What we observed overtime, as a field, was that the virus started to accumulated changes in the spike protein,” said Diamond. “When this starts to happen we begin to worry about the immune system response that we’ve generated. If a new variant comes along, the variant might be able to escape the immune response.”

    The spike became the prime target for COVID-19 drug and vaccine developers. So to assess whether the new variants could evade antibodies made by the original form of the virus and COVID-19 vaccines, Diamond and colleagues, including first author Rita E. Chen, a graduate student in Diamond’s lab, tested the ability of antibodies to neutralize three virus variants in the laboratory. Diamond looked at variants from South Africa, the United Kingdom and Brazil.

    The researcher team tested the variants against antibodies in the blood of people who had recovered from SARS-CoV-2 infection or were vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine. The findings from laboratory-based experiments suggest that COVID-19 drugs and vaccines developed thus far may become less effective as the new variants become dominant, as experts say they inevitably will. Diamond said the variants can evade antibodies that are produced in response to COVID-19 vaccinations, natural infections, or purified antibodies intended for use a drugs.

    Diamond said the findings create a stronger case for urging people to get vaccinated with the current COVID-19 vaccines.

    “You absolutely want to get vaccinated,” he said. “If you don’t get any vaccine, you’re not going to have any protection, then you’re going to be completely susceptible to some of these variants which turn out to be even more transmissible and is some regards more pathogenic, bad idea.”