Oxford University weighing up how vaccine platform would need to adapt to deal with variants

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/Teamjackson
© GettyImages/Teamjackson

Related tags variant COVID-19

The team behind the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine says it is carefully assessing the impact of new variants from the UK, South Africa and Brazil on vaccine immunity.

“It is known that viruses constantly change through mutation, leading to the emergence of new variants, and we should expect many new variants to be identified during 2021.

“These changes are being monitored closely by scientists, and it is important we continue to remain vigilant for changes in the future.

“The University of Oxford is evaluating the processes needed for rapid development of adjusted COVID-19 vaccines if these should be necessary,”​ a strategic communications manager at the public affairs directorate, University of Oxford, told BioPharma-Reporter today.

Challenges arising from South African variant 

Meanwhile, a study, published in bioRxiv​, the preprint server for biology, on Tuesday [January 19] by South African researchers, suggests the mutations of the SARS-CoV-2 variant that emerged in South Africa, known as 501Y.v2 or B1351, exhibits complete escape from three classes of therapeutically relevant monoclonal antibodies.

The research, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, was carried out by a team at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases in Johannesburg.

Furthermore, the team said they observed significantly increased neutralization resistance of 501Y.V2 to plasma from individuals previously infected with SARS-CoV-2, with implications for rates of re-infection.

“Here we show that the 501Y.V2 lineage, that contains nine spike mutations, and rapidly emerged in South Africa during the second half of 2020, is largely resistant to neutralizing antibodies elicited by infection with previously circulating lineages. This suggests that, despite the many people who have already been infected with SARS-CoV-2 globally and are presumed to have accumulated some level of immunity, new variants such as 501Y.V2 pose a significant re-infection risk.”

They said these data may also indicate reduced efficacy of current spike-based vaccines.

Neutralizing antibodies have repeatedly been demonstrated as the primary correlate of protection for most vaccines, including those designed to prevent infection with respiratory pathogens, said the scientists.

“Ultimately, the correlates of protection against SARS-CoV-2 infection and severe COVID-19 disease remain undetermined and rely upon ongoing large-scale clinical trials. Nevertheless, the speed and scope of 501Y.V2 mediated immune escape from pre-existing neutralizing antibodies highlight the urgent requirement for rapidly adaptable vaccine design platforms, and the need to identify less mutable viral targets for incorporation into future immunogens,” ​cautioned the South African experts.

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