These 2 Vaccines Are Effective Against the New India Variant, Study Finds

New research should ease some concerns about this emerging COVID variant.

The COVID pandemic has grown substantially less severe in the U.S. as approved vaccines have become available to all adults. At the same time, there are concerns that emerging COVID variants could potentially halt this progress by diminishing the efficacy of existing vaccines. Officials have been worried about a new variant that first emerged in India, B.1.617, which the World Health Organization (WHO) deemed a "variant of concern" on May 10. This designation means it could be more transmissible and may cause more severe disease than other versions of the virus. Fortunately, a new study has found that there are two current vaccines that are effective against the new India variant.

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A team of U.S. researchers from Emory University, Stanford University, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) sought to discover whether certain COVID vaccines are still able to protect against the new India variant B.1.617, publishing their study early on the bioRxiv server. After isolating a swab of the variant from a COVID patient in March 2021, the researchers looked at the neutralizing antibody response to the B.1.617 variant from 24 individuals previously infected with COVID and 25 vaccinated individuals.

They found that this new variant was nearly 7 times more resistant to neutralizing antibodies. However, the researchers noted that all of the convalescent sera obtained from individuals vaccinated with either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine were still able to neutralize the B.1.617 variant—meaning the two vaccines were effective in protecting against the India variant.

"This suggests that protective immunity by the mRNA vaccines tested here are likely retained against the B.1.617.1 variant," the study stated. However, the researchers did not test individuals who had been vaccinated with Johnson & Johnson—which is not an mRNA vaccine.

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Many experts have been concerned about this new variant because it may have helped produce a severe second wave of COVID infections in India. According to The New York Times, India reported more than 360,000 new cases on May 12 and more than 4,200 deaths—which is the highest daily death toll the country has recorded since the pandemic began. The variant has also already spread to at least 44 other countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States, CNN reported.

Ravi Gupta, a microbiologist at Cambridge University who has worked on his own study looking at vaccine responses to B.1.617, explained during a May 11 NPR episode that this new variant has more than a dozen mutations. But two of the mutations in particular have concerned health officials because they are found on an important part of the virus where the immune system attacks, he explained.

"The individual mutations reduced susceptibility to neutralization by vaccine antibodies, so it does sort of cause a drop in responses to vaccines," Gupta said. However, he noted that his research has found that the two mutations together did not double the amount of trouble for vaccines, which is what many were worried it would do. "There didn't seem to be this addition of one on top of the other," Gupta added. "I think that's really important because that's what the assumption has been that's caused all the panic."

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