German pharmaceutical company BioNTech is confident that its coronavirus vaccine works against the new UK variant, but further studies are need to be completely sure, its chief executive said Tuesday.
On the other hand, Pfizer and Moderna are also testing their coronavirus vaccines to see if they work against the new mutated version of the virus that's recently been found in the United Kingdom and other countries, CNN reported.
The variant, detected mainly in London and the southeast of England in recent weeks, has sparked concern worldwide because of signs that it may spread more easily. While there is no indication it causes more serious illness, numerous countries in Europe and beyond have restricted travel from the UK as a result.
"We don't know at the moment if our vaccine is also able to provide protection against this new variant," BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin told a news conference the day after the vaccine was approved for use in the European Union, "But scientifically, it is highly likely that the immune response by this vaccine also can deal with the new virus variants."
Sahin said that the proteins on the UK variant are 99% the same as on the prevailing strains, and therefore BioNTech has "scientific confidence" that its vaccine will be effective.
"But we will know it only if the experiment is done and we will need about two weeks from now to get the data," he said. "The likelihood that our vaccine works ... is relatively high." Should the vaccine need to be adjusted for the new variant the company could do so in about 6 weeks, said Ugur, though regulators might have to approve the changes before the shots can be used.
BioNTech's vaccine, developed together with U.S. pharmaceutical company Pfizer, is authorized for use in more than 45 countries including Britain, the United States and the EU.
Meanwhile, Moderna said in a statement, "Based on the data to date, we expect that the Moderna vaccine-induced immunity would be protective against the variants recently described in the UK."
The statement added, "We will be performing additional tests in the coming weeks to confirm this expectation."
According to CNN, Pfizer said it is now "generating data" on how well blood samples from people immunized with its vaccine "may be able to neutralize the new strain from the UK."
Pfizer and Moderna make the only two coronavirus vaccines that have been authorized by the US Food and Drug Administration.
The novel coronavirus has mutated before, and both companies say they've found that their vaccines worked against other variations of the virus.
Concerns over mutations
Some researchers who are examining the genome of the UK variant told CNN they have concerns that this variant's mutations might possibly "somewhat diminish" the effectiveness of the vaccine.
"You could imagine some modest hit in vaccine efficacy, which wouldn't be good, but I don't think it would break the vaccine," said Trevor Bedford, an associate professor in the vaccine and infectious disease division of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases on Monday said that a new COVID-19 variant linked to surge of cases in the United Kingdom is probably already in the United States.
"You have to make that assumption," Fauci told PBS Newshour's Judy Woodruff as quoted by CNN.
"When you see something that is pretty prevalent in a place like the UK, there are also mutations that we're seeing in South Africa, and given the travel throughout the world, I would not be surprised if it's already here," he added.
He added that "when we start to look for it we're going to find it." "Certainly it's not yet the prevalent one, the way it seems to have assumed that prevalent nature in the UK, but we're going to be looking for it right now, and I'm sure sooner or later we're going to run into it and find it," Fauci said.
The new strain of COVID-19 is "out of control", said UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Sunday.
(With inputs from agencies)