Pfizer, BioNTech vaccine tackles 3 troubling COVID-19 variants in lab study

Vaccine doses are fanning out around the globe, but officials worry that surging coronavirus variants could make the immunization push less effective. Thanks to a new lab study, Pfizer and BioNTech have some good news for them.

Pfizer and BioNTech’s mRNA shot appeared to work against three worrisome variants in a lab study, researchers from both companies and the University of Texas Medical Branch wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine. That incudes the P.1 variant that arose in Brazil and has raised concerns about re-infections.

Compared with an early isolate of the coronavirus from last January, engineered virus variants based on those identified in the U.K. and Brazil responded to the vaccine in a “roughly equivalent” fashion, the researchers wrote. Against an engineered form of the South African variant, its effect was “robust but lower.”  

P.1, first identified in Brazil, has caused significant concern because of a re-infections that cropped up in Manaus. Experts believed the population had neared a significant level of immunity following an initial coronavirus wave, but the variant seemed to evade immunity and caused another devastating wave earlier this year. 

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In the U.S., 15 cases of the P.1 variant have been identified in nine states, according to the CDC. That's likely far fewer than the actual number because the U.S. sequences a tiny fraction of coronavirus cases.

Another variant, B.1.1.7, was first detected in the U.K. and has infected many more people in the U.S. More than 3,000 cases of that variant have been identified by U.S. officials, with more than 600 in Florida.  

The CDC also says 81 cases of B.1.351, the variant first discovered in South Africa, have been found in the U.S. 

Pfizer and other vaccine players are well aware of the threats posed by the pandemic variants. Pfizer and Moderna have been testing whether they’ll need to add booster shots to their two-dose regimens, and all of the companies have said they're monitoring the situation closely. A preliminary study has found the AstraZeneca vaccine effective against the Brazilian variant, Reuters reports.

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Increasingly, it’s looking as if boosters will be needed to tackle variants, analysts with GlobalData said on Tuesday. 

Because there is “already some indication of COVID-19 re-infections and possible waning immunity from naturally recovered COVID-19 patients, yearly boosters may be required for COVID-19,” GlobalData product manager Johanna Swanson said in a statement. Still, vaccines will likely “prevent severe outcomes such as hospitalization and death,” Swanson said. 

An ongoing need for boosters would extend a pandemic revenue surge for vaccine makers. Analyst are expecting megablockbuster vaccine revenue for Pfizer and Moderna this year, and though the revenue will likely decrease in future years, an annual booster would keep blockbuster sales coming, perhaps at higher prices.

As vaccinations pick up, U.S. officials have said March is a critical month in the fight against the pandemic. Vaccines will be much more available in the coming months, but still a critical mass of people have yet to get their shots. Infections are still spreading within communities, so experts say it’s not yet the time to relax distancing measures.