Concern COVID-19 mutations could thwart new vaccines

by | Nov 20, 2020 | News

Hope soared around the world for defeating the coronavirus pandemic when a Pfizer-BioNTech partnership announced its vaccine had proven “more than 90 per cent effective” in trials against COVID-19.

Scientists look for a 70-per-cent success rate as the mark of an effective vaccine, “so these results are so promising,” said Dr. Rabia Er Piskin, a doctor and researcher from Turkey now living in Canada.

The company is now requesting the drug be approved for an Emergency Use Authorization by the Food and Drug Association, which would allow the vaccine to be used in high-risk populations in the U.S. by mid-to late-December.

“Filing for Emergency Use Authorization in the U.S. is a critical step in making our vaccine candidate available to the global population as quickly as possible,” Ugur Sahin, CEO and co-founder of the German-based BioNTech, said in a press release.

Concerns remain, however, about the virus mutating into forms the vaccine does not treat.

“A vaccine with 90 per cent effectiveness means social immunization,” Er Piskin said. “The mutation is the possibility we fear the most. Viruses tend to mutate due to their nature.”

Selma Duran, a medical student who has a PhD in biochemistry from Gazi University in Turkey, said all vaccines are trying to do the same thing no matter what illness they are looking to treat.

“Vaccines are the teacher of our immune system,” Duran said. “They create a safe zone for our body to learn how to fight back with viruses and bacteria.”

“The working procedure of the vaccine is quite complex,” she said. “However, the main idea remains the same: which is to teach the immune system how to fight back in long term.”

Vaccinations consist of the combination of most-observed mutated versions of a virus. A vaccination covers merely a couple of those mutated versions, meaning they would be of little benefit against other mutations.

“Every virus is different and unique,” Duran said. “Therefore, they require a different type of antibody. This is the challenging part for those who have been trying to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.”

The vaccine was tested on 43,538 individuals selected from different ethnicities, and among those who were vaccinated, the immunity rate was measured as 90 per cent. Second phase tests were also administered to 38,955 people.

“The public expects the vaccination to completely terminate the virus right after the administration,” Er Piskin said. “Yet due to the structure of the virus, this is impossible.”

If COVID-19 does not mutate, those who are vaccinated once will be protected from the virus for life. If the virus changes every year, like influenza, more research and a new vaccine will be required.

“In the middle of September, Denmark announced that they have discovered mutated COVID-19 in minks, which infected humans,” Duran said.

“Now they are going to cull 17 million minks to prevent mutated virus COVID-19. Here is the funny thing about mutation: you never know what will happen until it happens,” she said.