What is the latest in COVID-19 vaccine advances? Can currently authorized vaccines protect against newly emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants? In this Hope Behind the Headlines feature, we examine these and other questions.

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New, and possibly more contagious, variants of SARS-CoV-2 — which is the virus that causes COVID-19 — are emerging in countries around the world. Add to that the fact that the global number of COVID-19 cases is currently at over 95 million, and it can be difficult to remain optimistic that we will see the end of the pandemic anytime soon.

Yet scientists have not stopped working on vaccines, which are key to controlling the spread of the new coronavirus in the long run.

In this Hope Behind the Headlines feature, we look at what experts have to say about whether or not currently authorized vaccines are likely to protect us against new SARS-CoV-2 variants.

We also give an overview of a promising vaccine candidate currently under trial, which has recently made the headlines.

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Experts have explained time and again that in order to contain SARS-CoV-2 and prevent more coronavirus outbreaks in the future, vaccines are of utmost importance.

At the moment, there are eight COVID-19 vaccines with authorization in countries around the world.

So far, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which is an mRNA vaccine, has gained authorization for use in 50 countries. These include the United States, the United Kingdom, and the 27 countries that make up the European Union.

The vaccine developed by Moderna and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which is also an mRNA vaccine, is currently authorized in 36 countries. These include the U.S., the U.K., and E.U. countries.

Sputnik V, which is a viral vector vaccine developed by the Russian research institute Gamaleya, is authorized in eight countries: Algeria, Argentina, Belarus, Bolivia, Guinea, Russia, Serbia, and West Bank.

Close on its heels is the Oxford-AstraZeneca viral vector vaccine, which has gained use authorization in seven countries. These are Argentina, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, India, Mexico, Morocco, and the U.K.

Other vaccines that have gained authorization in certain countries are:

  • Covishield, a viral vector vaccine authorized in India
  • Covaxin, an inactivated vaccine authorized in India
  • the Sinopharm vaccine, also inactivated, which is authorized in six countries, including China, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates
  • the Sinovac vaccine, also inactivated, which is authorized in China, Indonesia, and Turkey

At a global forum held on January 15, 2021, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus — the World Health Organization’s (WHO) director-general — said:

“The development and approval of several safe and effective vaccines less than a year after this virus was isolated and sequenced is an astounding scientific accomplishment.”

The U.K. has been enforcing new lockdowns in the face of ever-increasing cases of COVID-19. These rising numbers may be due to a new, and seemingly more infectious, variant of SARS-CoV-2.

South Africa and Brazil have also reported the emergence of new variants that have led to some concern.

One of the main questions that people around the world are asking in relation to emerging variants of SARS-CoV-2 is this: Will COVID-19 vaccines be effective against them?

So far, specialists and the pharmaceutical companies that produce currently available vaccines have expressed optimism that the vaccines will be effective against emerging variants and strains.

When speaking to Medical News Today earlier this month, both Pfizer and the NIAID declared that there is no reason to suspect that their vaccines would not work against the SARS-CoV-2 variant identified in the U.K.

“At present, NIAID scientists believe that the SARS-CoV-2 vaccines supported by Operation Warp Speed will provide protection against SARS-CoV-2 [U.K. variant], including […] Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines authorized for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration [FDA].”

Both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna-NIAID, whose vaccines are currently authorized for use in the U.S. and U.K., offer mRNA vaccines. These contain genetic information from the virus.

Our cells then make the viral Spike protein encoded in this information and present it to our immune system. This, in turn, allows our immune system to “learn” to fight off the virus, which will equip us for future infections with SARS-CoV-2.

According to experts, mRNA technology is adaptable enough that, in theory, scientists could easily “tweak” mRNA vaccines so as to ensure effectiveness against emerging variants or strains of a virus.

Dr. Uğur Şahin, the CEO of BioNTech, has declared that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine should work against different variants of SARS-CoV-2, against which his colleagues have already tested the vaccine. He has also noted that, in any case, their vaccine is easily adaptable.

Other scientists have also noted that at least some of the COVID-19 vaccines that have gained authorization around the world should be adaptable so as to remain effective against emerging variants of SARS-CoV-2.

In relation to the variant that emerged in South Africa, Dr. Julian W. Tang — a clinical virologist from the University of Leicester in the U.K. — has commented:

“Even if the South African variant becomes more widespread and dominant, the mRNA (Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna) and adenovirus-vectored (Oxford-AstraZeneca and Russian Sputnik V) vaccines can be modified to be more close-fitting and effective against this variant in a few months.”

“Meanwhile,” he added, “most of us believe that the existing vaccines are likely to work to some extent to reduce infection/transmission rates and severe disease against both the U.K. and South African variants — as the various mutations have not altered the S protein [which helps the virus gain entry into healthy cells] shape that the current vaccine-induced antibodies will not bind at all.”

Although some vaccines have already gained use authorization in various countries, there are still many vaccine candidates currently undergoing clinical trials.

Some of the candidates in late-stage trials are showing promise, offering hope that more vaccines may become available around the world by the end of 2021.

A top contender is the vaccine candidate developed by pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson. This candidate is also known as the Janssen COVID-19 vaccine candidate.

Johnson & Johnson’s experimental viral vector vaccine uses a modified adenovirus, or a common cold virus, as the vaccine candidate “base.” This carries the gene for the SARS-CoV-2 Spike protein.

Unlike some of the vaccines that have already gained use authorization, the company are testing this vaccine candidate as both a single-dose and a two-dose regimen to create immunity.

The Janssen COVID-19 vaccine candidate was already showing some promise in early trials, though these briefly paused in October 2020 due to one of the trial participants developing “unexplained illness.”

Trials have since resumed, and the company have recently made available the interim results from phases 1 and 2.

These results indicate that the vaccine candidate was well tolerated by participants overall, suggesting that it is safe. The vaccine candidate also appeared to induced an immune response in those who received it, suggesting that it may also be effective against SARS-CoV-2.

The phase 3 trial data should also be available by the end of January, according to a Johnson & Johnson statement. Once these data are available, the company are hoping to file for FDA emergency use authorization.

According to a recent New York Times report, Dr. Paul Stoffels — the chief scientific officer at Johnson & Johnson — has commented that “hopefully somewhere in March [the company will] be able to contribute” to vaccination efforts in the U.S.

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