Scientists are closely monitoring a new coronavirus variant that was first identified in South Africa and seems to be more transmissible. It could also make current antibody drugs and vaccines less effective. Jacob Glanville, founder and CEO of Centivax, a computational immuno-engineering group that focuses on making antibody therapeutics and vaccines, explains what we know so far about the new variant.
JACOB GLANVILLE: Since the beginning of the outbreak it has been on the mind of all epidemiologists and virologists the question of, to what degree is the virus going to mutate before we can snuff it out? We’ve been keeping an eye on the virus the whole time– there’s sequencing happening all over the world. And then, more recently, the troubling ones are one in the UK, and then also one in South Africa, both of which share some mutations but they also have many additional sets of mutations.
So the concerns with those two strains is that some mutations change the DNA sequence, they may even change little parts of the virus, but they don’t really change how the virus behaves. But in this case, some of these mutations seem like they’ve altered the behavior of the virus– they’ve allowed it to become more infectious. And, of course, that’s concerning. It doesn’t look like they’ve gotten more virulent. So it’s not hurting people more than the current coronavirus, but that’s something we look at as well.
So far, the UK virus, even though you have a number of mutations, the thing is still 99% identical to what was in the vaccine. That means if you get vaccinated, almost all of your antibodies are still going to recognize the UK strain. So it might transmit a little easier, but the vaccine is still going to do its job.
The one in South Africa, it’s a little bit more concerning. It has three mutations that just happen to be right-ringed around the special part of the spike– it’s called the receptor-binding domain– that it uses to attack your cells. That’s a concern for antibody therapeutics because if the antibodies are trying to block that interaction, they’re going to be right on the spot where the mutations are. But with a vaccine, even though there are these three mutations, keep in mind, your body is going to produce, like, 1,000 antibodies against the spike.
This is an argument for us all to get vaccinated as soon as possible. Because the sooner we can get a population vaccinated, the less new people can get infected, and the virus has to go through new people in order to create new mutations and expand. And so the faster we can slow the virus, the faster we can snuff out the problem. But at this point, I don’t think you need to worry that there’s an escape strain that the vaccines won’t work on. That’s just the power of our immune system is that we make 1,000 antibodies so that even if you lose some you’re still going to win the war.
So if not enough people take the vaccine, then it will become endemic. It just will keep infecting enough people that it’ll just keep circulating. And, eventually, it’ll be mutated enough that we will need to adjust the vaccines because they won’t work as well anymore. The good news here is that it won’t be like how this year went. If this becomes an endemic problem, where this becomes a new type of shot, like flu shots that you have to take every year, then we can take advantage of a lot of the infrastructure that’s been developed for decades to be able to handle the endemic flu crisis.
There are a series of expedited processes that have been set in place for decades that enables us to create a new flu vaccine every year. What they do is this. They say, listen, the new flu is going to pop up. It’s different enough that we need a new version, but it’s basically the same flu shot– we’re just tweaking it. And so that allows them to do this extra fast approach of being able to estimate by looking at the circulating strains in the world. They estimate what they should probably put in that vaccine to provide people the best possible coverage.
But because you’re producing basically the same vaccine but with some modifications, you don’t have to go through all those phase trials. Let’s say, for instance, that the South African strain gets out and it continues to mutate. And so a new version eventually comes up that we think is different enough that the vaccines are working half as well now. And so what would happen is, scientists would slightly modify the genetic sequence– so it would be the same vaccine, it would just be slightly different genetic information. It’s literally using RNA, which you can alter.
And it’s a very clean, simple molecule. And so they can process it relatively quickly. That means that that process could be faster. The things that are going to slow you down are not so much the technologies at this point, it’s going to be the regulatory hurdles. And I think for good reasons, as well as a mixture of, I would say, less good reasons, there’s going to be a calculated balance, and it may depend on nation to nation on what level of expedited updating to the vaccines that they’re willing to tolerate.