New COVID-19 mutations: Here’s what you need to know

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Pharmaceutical companies are working to understand how effective COVID-19 vaccines are on variants being discovered worldwide — some that have already landed in the United States.

“Globally, we think there’s four or five of these now,” says Dr. Rodney Rohde, chair of Texas State University’s clinical laboratory science program.

Rohde said so far, variants include one from the United Kingdom, two from Brazil (P.1 and P.2), one from South Africa and one variant from California that’s currently circulating around Los Angeles.

The South Africa variant has been found in the United States for the first time, with two cases diagnosed in South Carolina, state health officials said Thursday.

This KXAN map shows the four areas where COVID-19 variants have been discovered. Strains from Brazil and the United Kingdom have now been detected in the United States.

On Monday, Minnesota health officials confirmed the first known COVID-19 variant from Brazil in the United States.

The confirmation came as Moderna also announced it would be conducting further studies to test its vaccine against the South African strain of the virus.

It’s also the same day Jeanette Larson and her husband, who has Parkinson’s, finally got their Moderna vaccine.

“I’d been trying for several weeks,” Larson said. “I had registered myself and my husband with probably almost a dozen places, waiting for a call.”

“To me, it’s a little bit like the flu, you’re going to have variants every year,” says Jeanette Larson of the new COVID-19 variants. She says she trusts the science and will get another booster shot, if needed, to protect against the mutations. (Courtesy of Jeanette Larson)

They ended up going to her doctor’s office after it had extra doses at the end of the day.

Now, Larson is keeping an eye on news of the COVID-19 variants.

Rohde, who specializes in virology and microbiology, said variants are expected.

“It’s still kind of the same virus and makeup, but these little regions change just a little bit,” Rohde said, pointing to the spikes on a coronavirus. “And so that means that that lock and key, that antibody, it’s kind of lock and key fit may not work as well. It does not mean it quits working.”

But Rohde says if the virus changes too much, it can become a problem.

“The typical antibodies that the human body produces may not recognize it at all, or very weakly, or a vaccine may not be as effective,” he said.

He said part of the virus changes occurs randomly but other times, it responds to environmental pressures.

“For example, let’s say in this instance — and I’m just hypothesizing here. Let’s say that the coronavirus main strains are feeling the pressure of therapy,” Rohde said. “Or it’s been through enough of a population that it kind of recognizes that the human is adapting to it. And so they will automatically kind of transition to change genetically.”

Moderna said its two-dose vaccine is expected to protect against “emerging strains detected to date,” but added that protection against the South African variant was less effective.

As a result, Moderna’s CEO said the company will be moving forward with a potential variant booster, which they hope will protect against the variant first identified in the Republic of South Africa.

Moderna said it will also test an additional booster, in addition to the one now heading to its next study phase.

Larson said she’s glad they were able to get their vaccine and plans to keep guard against whatever is next.

“We will still wear our masks. We’ll still try to be as careful as we’ve been,” she said.

Rohde said that’s one of the best ways to minimize mutations.

“Trying to limit travel, continuing prevention and then, yeah, we want to keep an eye on surveillance as we talked about so that we can hopefully know that our vaccine and therapy products are working at least well enough to keep people from dying,” Rohde said.

Jeanette Larson says she signed herself and her husband (pictured) up for waiting lists that included Austin Public Health, Williamson Co. and even Falls County, about 70 miles away from her Round Rock home (Courtesy of Jeanette Larson)

Pfizer vaccine efficacy

Previously, Moderna had published in vitro studies, which is what Pfizer did earlier this month.

“Which means it’s done in-house,” explained Rohde. “They take cell cultures, cells that are growing, and they take patients who have had those infections, who would have the antibodies, and they put it in with the new virus strain. And they see what happens. Will it cause an infection?”

A Pfizer spokesperson told KXAN they’re encouraged by these early findings, but further data are needed to monitor the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine’s effectiveness in preventing COVID-19 caused by new variants.

Pfizer did not say whether or not they will be moving studies into the next phase, as Moderna is doing, but said they’d release more updates overall as they become available.

Benchmark Research in Austin has conducted several COVID-19 vaccine trials for both Moderna and Pfizer. However, they don’t yet know if Moderna’s booster shot studies will come to Austin.

“Almost all of the major pharmaceutical companies are doing in-vitro neutralization studies right now against the new variants. This states that Moderna is now moving this booster shot into preclinical and Phase 1 studies so there is a possibility that later this year or in a few months we could work with Moderna on this, but we only conduct Phase 2 and 3 studies (mostly Phase 3) so we will not be participating in this right now,” Benchmark Research said in an email to KXAN.

All studies referenced only pertain to the COVID-19 variants from the U.K. and South Africa. Moderna’s CEO says the South African variant appears similar to the P.1 from Brazil.

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