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COVID-19 vaccine maker believes shot will work on new virus variant

Last Updated Dec 22, 2020 at 12:50 pm PST

A nurse prepares a shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Guy's Hospital in London, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein, Pool)

COVID-19 vaccine maker says it's 'highly likely' immune response his company's shot has will work on new variant

Unclear if new variant, first detected in U.K., is in Canada at this point

B.C.'s top doctor says new variant worrisome, but no changes to current COVID-19 response

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – The manufacturer of the vaccine that is being distributed in Canada is confident it will work on the new coronavirus variant first reported in the U.K..

The variant, detected mainly in London and the southeast of England in recent weeks, has sparked concern worldwide because of signs that it may spread more easily. While there is no indication it causes more serious illness, numerous countries in Europe and beyond, including Canada, have restricted travel from the U.K. as a result.

“We don’t know at the moment if our vaccine is also able to provide protection against this new variant,” CEO Ugur Sahin told a news conference the day after the vaccine was approved for use in the European Union. “But scientifically, it is highly likely that the immune response by this vaccine also can deal with the new virus variants.”

Sahin said that the proteins on the UK variant are 99 per cent the same as on the prevailing strains, and therefore BioNTech has “scientific confidence” that its vaccine will be effective.

“But we will know it only if the experiment is done and we will need about two weeks from now to get the data,” he said. “The likelihood that our vaccine works … is relatively high.”

The BioNTech CEO noted that if its vaccine, produced with U.S. pharmaceutical company Pfizer, needs to be adjusted, that could happen within about six weeks. However, Sahin said regulators may have to approve any changes before the new shots can be administered.

B.C. staying the course on COVID response

Tensions are high as vaccine rollouts continue across Canada and as fears mount over whether the new mutated virus is in this country, which health experts have said is likely.

“To date, Canada has not identified the new variant of the coronavirus under investigation in the United Kingdom,” said Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam.

According to Health Canada, which is being cited by the Globe and Mail, the variant that is spreading more rapidly in Britain could be in a pool of samples waiting for analysis in this country.

The variant also seems to have appeared in the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy and as far as Australia, according to international reports.

When asked about the new mutation, B.C.’s top doctor said on Monday that the medical community is still trying to understand more about it.

“The evidence has shown that so far, it does not seem to increase the severity of illness. However, it does seem to mean that the virus can transmit more easily,” Dr. Bonnie Henry said, adding this virus mutates slowly compared to others.

She explained that it’s not uncommon for viruses of this nature to mutate

“What was a little surprising is that, just by random chance, probably, this one mutation — number of mutations — on this one variant arose at the same time, and it may be that because it transmitted more rapidly, that’s why it sort of took over. This is what we see happen sometimes, that one of the mutations may just randomly confer an advantage to that virus, which means that it will take over and spread more rapidly, or it will be the one that will infect more people,” Henry said.

Admitting news of this variant is worrisome, Henry said there has been little change to B.C.’s approach to fighting COVID-19 at this point but people should be extra diligent given the potential for a more transmissible virus to overwhelm hospitals.

As B.C.’s vaccine rollout continues, the provincial health officer noted that there aren’t enough shots to protect all British Columbians just yet.

Every health region in B.C. is now distributing the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, with the province’s program expanding this week.