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US army scientists examine new UK coronavirus variant to see if it might be resistant to vaccine

Scientists at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research expect to know in the next few days if there's a concern that the coronavirus vaccines might not work against a mutated variant of the virus that's rapidly spreading in parts of England, according to the institute's top vaccine researcher.

Posted: Dec 21, 2020 8:45 AM
Updated: Dec 21, 2020 11:39 AM

Scientists at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research expect to know in the next few days if there's a concern that the coronavirus vaccines might not work against a mutated variant of the virus that's rapidly spreading in parts of England, according to the institute's top vaccine researcher.

While there's always a worry that a vaccine won't work if a virus mutates significantly, the Walter Reed scientists still expect the vaccine will be effective against this new variant, said Dr. Nelson Michael, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

"It stands to reason that this mutation isn't a threat, but you never know. We still have to be diligent and continue to look," Michael said.

On Thursday, the Walter Reed team started examining genetic sequences of the new UK variant posted online by British researchers.

They're doing a computer analysis as a first step.

"The computer analysis will allow us to gauge how much concern we should have," Michael said. "Other teams around the world are doing this analysis, too."

If the computer analysis show there's a concern, then studies would need to be done in the laboratory and in animals to more definitively determine if the vaccine will work on this variant.

At a press conference Saturday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced new holiday lockdowns in parts of England that have seen the spread of the new mutation.

"There's no evidence to suggest the vaccine will be any less effective against the new variant. Our experts will continue their work to improve our understanding as fast as we can," Johnson said.

The UK's chief scientific advisor agreed.

"Our working assumption at the moment from all of the scientists is that the vaccine response should be adequate for this virus," Dr. Patrick Vallance said at the press conference.

The US Food and Drug Administration has authorized two vaccines, one by Pfizer and the other by Moderna. Both work by creating a genetic blueprint for the spikes that appear on the surface of the novel coronavirus. The immune system "sees" the spikes and learns how to launch an attack against it.

As with other new variants or strains of Covid-19, this one carries a genetic fingerprint that makes it easy to track, and it happens to be one that is now common. That does not mean the mutation has made it spread more easily, nor does it not necessarily mean this variation is more dangerous.

Multiple experts in the genetics and epidemiology of viruses are noting that this one could be just a "lucky" strain that's been amplified because of a superspreader event; it could be the mutation somehow makes it spread more easily without causing more serious illness; or it could just be by chance.

In August, the Walter Reed team published a study showing that the vaccines still worked against several other mutations of the coronavirus.

The vaccines are still useful because viruses mutate constantly, but typically not in ways that would render a vaccine useless, said Dr. William Schaffner, an advisor to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on vaccines.

"Even with mutations, the virus essentially stays the same," Schaffner said. "It's like with a person. I can switch out my brown coat for a gray coat, but I'm still Bill Schaffner. I've changed something, but I'm still the same person."

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