'Chances Slim That COVID-19 Vaccine Won't Help Against New Mutation'

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A patient rolls up his sleeve to receive a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in Hyde, Greater Manchester, England, December 17, 2020.
A patient rolls up his sleeve to receive a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in Hyde, Greater Manchester, England, December 17, 2020.Credit: OLI SCARFF - AFP

The British government suddenly sent large parts of the United Kingdom into lockdown on Saturday, due to fears of a new mutation of COVID-19, which is spreading quickly in London and southeast England. The British said that the new mutation is not more dangerous, but it may be more contagious and that may be a reason for the swift spread of the disease in recent days.

The big question that arises in light of the disturbing news is, of course, whether the new vaccines and the drugs being used in treating the coronavirus will also be effective in combating the new mutation.

Prof. Jacob Moran-Gilad, an expert on clinical microbiology and public health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and a member of the Health Ministry’s pandemic team, says that “this is a mutation that has become quite common in recent weeks in certain areas in the United Kingdom. There’s no clear scientific information as yet regarding the significance of the mutation, only estimates.”

However, he tells Haaretz, “because we’re seeing the mutation with growing frequency, we think it may be related to improved transmission of the virus – in other words, that it is more contagious. But that’s not necessarily the case – it may be a result of the epidemiology of infection in the areas that have been affected.”

Moran-Gilad stresses that “the British are global leaders on the subject of the genetic sequencing of the virus and are therefore discovering a very large number of mutations, and we have yet to see what that signifies."

Prof. Moran-Gilad. “The mutation is in the same genetic part of the virus to which the vaccine is directed. When the body creates antibodies, they know to identify many areas in the virus' sequence."Credit: ECSMID

At the moment, the professor notes, "the specific mutation in question has been discovered only in Great Britain. It may be present in other places, but it seems to be a local mutation. In any case, the dominant virus at present in England has already undergone all kinds of mutations and is transmitted more quickly than the original one. In terms of the overall population that’s not very significant: The same directives to the public regarding wearing masks and maintaining a distance remain in place.”

The big question here is, of course, whether the vaccines will be effective against the new mutation, or have we returned to square one?

“The mutation is in the same genetic part of the virus to which the vaccine is directed. It’s quite a large genetic segment, and when the body creates antibodies – they know how to identify many areas in the sequence of the virus. Therefore, the chances that a specific mutation will cause the vaccine to be ineffective is slight. However, there’s a known phenomenon in the world of vaccines that over time the causes of diseases can change in a manner that reduces the effectiveness of the vaccines. It’s not all or nothing.”

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