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jab worry Health experts concerned Covid-19 vaccine may not be as effective against South African variant

Preliminary data from South Africa shows that the effectiveness of antibodies "is not quite as good" against the variant when compared to the original strain.

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The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. Photo: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. Photo: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Getty Images

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. Photo: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Health experts have expressed concerns that the Covid-19 vaccine may not be as effective against the new South African variant of the virus.

Preliminary data from South Africa shows that the effectiveness of antibodies "is not quite as good" against the variant when compared to the original strain, it has emerged.

Dr Cillian De Gascun, UCD National Virus Reference Laboratory Director, said the South African variant is a big concern.

He said there is no evidence yet that the transmissibility differs greatly between the South African and UK strains.

"The UK variant and the South African variant both share a single change in the spike protein, which is the N501Y amino acid change," he told Newstalk.

"We know from studies that this appears to change the effectiveness of the virus, or basically makes it better at attaching to cells.

Dr de Gascun said this means it is associated with a higher viral load, which health officials believe is responsible for the increased transmissibility of the strain.

"I think what's caused concern about the South African variant is that it had additional changes or mutations in the spike protein which is the region of the virus which attaches to cells...and that elicits an immune response," he said.

"It's the part of the virus that our immune system sees first and it's also the part of the virus that is included in most of the vaccine candidates.

"I think that's one of the reasons people are concerned about the South African variant is that you've got a combination of the increased transmissibility and also changes in the spike protein that potentially might have an impact on antigenicity, or vaccine response."

Dr de Gascun, who is a member of the National Public Health and Emergency Team (Nphet), said that there is currently a "theoretical concern" that the coronavirus vaccine may not be as effective against the new variant of the virus.

He added that more studies are needed on the immune response to the variant.

He said: "At the moment it's very much a theoretical risk but...it is a concern.

"We don't necessarily expect to see the South African variant spread or transmit in the community here to the same extent as the UK variant has.

"But we have no definitive evidence at this point in time that there's going to be an impact on the vaccine response, it's a theoretical concern.

Dr de Gascun said that public health measures will be effective in combating the spread of the new variant of the virus.

"While the new variants of the virus are concerning and it's important that we're vigilant, it's also important that people don't think public health measures are futile," he explained.

"It's really important that people understand we can bring these new variants under control in the same way we brought the original virus under control."

Dr De Gascun also said that nobody can predict “with certainly” when we might return to a sense of normality, taking into consideration the roll out of the vaccine programme.

Speaking with Katie Hannon on RTE Radio 1, Dr De Gascun said we know the vaccine will be effective in preventing serious illness and reducing mortality.

“But, one key piece of information we don't have relates to what their effect would be on asymptomatic infection and onward transmission of the virus.

“There's no reason to believe that they won't have an effect on that but until then we can’t be sure that they would stop people having an infection without developing symptoms and then transmitting the virus onto others. In other words will still need to adhere to with the public health measures for a long while.”

He added: “It's important for people to remember that the measures we have implemented will work but people need to avoid high risk settings. The key message is for people to avoid high risk situations, reduce their contacts and to follow the public health measures because they will work.

People need to know that yes, a more transmissible virus by definition will be more difficult to control, so it is important that people become even more vigilant.”



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