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expert reaction to a preprint suggesting the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine might be protective against the B.1.1.7 lineage of SARS-CoV-2 (‘the Kent variant’)

A preprint, an unpublished non-peer reviewed study, suggests the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine might be effective against the SARS-CoV-2 variant found in Britain.


Dr Julian Tang, Honorary Associate Professor/Clinical Virologist, Respiratory Sciences, University of Leicester, said:

“Fortunately this small study shows that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine should still be optimally effective against the UK variant of the COVID-19 virus – and I suspect that this will be similar for the other COVID-19 S-protein-based vaccines.

“Unlike the South African and Brazilian variants, the UK variant only has one mutation (N501Y) in the S protein receptor binding domain (RBD), so the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine seems to have retained its efficacy against this virus.

“Another study has suggested that the current S protein COVID-19 vaccines may be less effective against the South African and Brazilian variants due to their additional mutations (K417T/N, E484K) in the RBD.

“So it would be useful to see some additional studies on the efficacy of the Pfizer BioNTech and “Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines against these viruses also.

“In the meantime, we still need to continue with the COVID-19 vaccine programme and follow the current lockdown restrictions whilst we do this – to protect the vulnerable until they are vaccinated.”


Prof Lawrence Young, Virologist and Professor of Molecular Oncology, Warwick Medical School, said:

“The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine can block infection of the mutant UK virus in laboratory studies.

“This preprint shows that a synthetic virus carrying the mutations that are present in the spike of the UK virus variant (B.1.1.7) can be blocked from infecting cells in the laboratory by antibodies from individuals vaccinated with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. These antibodies were from blood taken from 16 individuals at 21 days after the second (booster) vaccination. This is a reassuring result but doesn’t address the effect of current vaccines on infection with other variant viruses including those identified in South Africa and Brazil.

“The BioNTech authors of this preprint reinforce the flexibility of mRNA-based vaccine technology to be rapidly adapted to accommodate changes in the virus.”


Dr Ayfer Ali, Associate Professor at Warwick Business School specialising in the pharmaceutical industry, the development of new drugs, and drug repurposing, said:

“This is an in-vitro study on a small sample of sera. We will need to observe protection in vaccinated people to be absolutely sure but these are very encouraging results.

“The previous preprint from Pfizer had a slightly larger sample size of 20 and tested only 2 mutations which means that that the virus deviated less from the original one for which the vaccine was created. The more mutations, the higher the likelihood that the vaccine might not work, so the fact that the vaccine creates antibodies capable of neutralizing this variant with more mutation is more reassuring.

“It remains to be seen if the Pfizer vaccine will protect against other variants as some mutations are more significant than others. And the final test will be whether it prevents symptomatic disease in vaccinated people. There will be lots of mutations coming up – the more the virus is allowed to circulate in the population, the more mutations it will accumulate. That’s why it’s important to lower the spread as much as possible especially now that we have a vaccine and the end of the pandemic is in sight.” 


Dr Jonathan Stoye, Group Leader, Retrovirus-Host Interactions Laboratory, The Francis Crick Institute, said:

“The news that the UK variant of SARS-CoV-2 is fully susceptible to antibodies made in response to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine should not be considered surprising but is very welcome.

“The study applies standard methodology to examine the inhibition of viruses carrying the spike protein of the new variant and original viruses by sera from 16 individuals who participated in German trials of the vaccine.  No difference was seen between the two virus preparations. This makes it very unlikely that the UK variant will escape from the protection provided by the vaccine.  The only potential caveat is that this study used a non-replicating pseudotype virus assay but previous work has shown no significant differences in virus neutralisation between this system and one involving replicating coronavirus.

“It will be interesting to carry out the same experiments with the South African variant.” 


Prof Danny Altmann, Professor of Immunology at Imperial College London and British Society for Immunology spokesperson, said:

“I find it impossible to remember a time in immunology when so many scientists around the world have raced to answer a single question, and one with of such overwhelming global significance. This answer, in a preprint from the Pfizer team, looks at neutralisation by sera from 16 vaccine recipients against spike antigen carrying the B.1.1.7 mutations. Most individuals show a slight reduction in neutralisation against the mutant, hopefully not enough to impair protection. But how much reduction would be enough to really narrow our vaccination escape strategy? Preprints are appearing daily,  including impressive studies from New York and South Africa, mapping responses to the mutants in more detail, and finding some quite disturbing effects on neutralisation.”


Prof Paul Hunter, Professor in Medicine, The Norwich School of Medicine, University of East Anglia, said:

“That is not surprising. Table 2 of this report – – effectively shows that the mutation of concern in the English variant of concern (lineage B1.1.7) is N501Y. This mutation is ‘associated with fast growing lineages and increased binding affinity to hACE2 receptor’ so it is more infectious but it is not an ‘escape mutant’ that would cause problems for vaccine control. The report today simply confirms what we would have expected.

“The E484K mutation is an escape mutant and this is present in the South African variant (B1.351) and both Brazilian variants P1 and P2). But this mutation is not present in the UK strain. However, the South African strain has been detected in the UK albeit currently in small numbers but does seem to be increasing in recent weeks. Variants with this mutation could reduce vaccine efficacy, though most likely all current vaccines would still be highly effective.”


Dr Simon Clarke, Associate Professor in Cellular Microbiology, said:

“These data are a positive finding suggesting that the so called ‘Kent variant’ of the COVID-19 coronavirus is no less susceptible to neutralisation by antibodies produced in response to Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine.  This experimental evidence confirms earlier predictions.  We await similar studies on other variants, particularly from South Africa and Brazil.

“While this study confirms that the antibody response is not blunted by the mutations in this variant, it does not assess the affect that these may have on T-cell immunity, so it remains entirely possible that they could indeed have an adverse effect on vaccine-induced immunity.”



Declared interests

None received.

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