Just two months ago, the prospects for beating the novel coronavirus with highly effective vaccines couldn’t have seemed better. Shots from Moderna and the Pfizer-BioNTech partnership proved more than 90% effective in preventing Covid-19 symptoms in massive trials, surpassing the most optimistic forecasts. An end to the pandemic appeared imminent.
Yet pharma companies now suddenly face a daunting challenge that few anticipated we’d see so soon: an onslaught of fast-spreading and potentially dangerous mutations of the virus. So even as they ramp up production in the early stages of a massive rollout, drugmakers have to retool their vaccine strategies. That’s raised the possibility that patients will need extra shots to protect against the new strains—and that drugmakers could get a new revenue stream that, for some, may prove lucrative.
The highly transmissible B.1.1.7 mutation first identified in the U.K. is spreading across the U.S. But the strains researchers are most worried about coming from South Africa and Brazil. The South African variant has spread quickly across Africa and has been seen in at least 24 countries elsewhere. It was reported in South Carolina on Jan. 28 and in Maryland two days later. The strain prominent in Brazil shares one of the same key mutations.
Current Covid vaccines are formulated to fight the form of the virus that was most prevalent last year. But small changes occur as the virus replicates, so as the pathogen spreads, it mutates into viruses the original vaccines might not be properly tailored to fight. The world has “allowed the virus to infect 100 million people already,” says virologist David Ho, who heads the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center at Columbia University. “That is 100 million chances for mutation.”
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