The UK has launched a surge testing programme to detect the South African variant after several cases were identified and couldn’t be linked to travel or an obvious source of infection.
According to experts, it could suggest the variant is more widespread in the local community than believed, as there aren’t any clusters.
This week, AstraZeneca PLC (LON:AZN) is expected to release results of tests looking into the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Oxford University against the variant, which spreads more easily and has a higher viral burden after infection.
Competitors Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) and BioNTech said last week neutralisation was slightly lower compared to other mutations, but they believe it will not lead to “a significant reduction” of the jab’s effectiveness.
Similarly, Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) found that its one-shot vaccine had an efficacy rate of 72% in the US but of 57% in South Africa, where nearly all cases of COVID-19 were due to the new strain, although the overall rate in the trial was of 66%.
Moderna (NASDAQ:MRNA) and Novavax (NASDAQ:NVAX) had worse luck with their inoculations: the former reported an efficacy six times weaker compared to other variants, though it remains above levels that are expected to be protective, while the latter saw the rate dropping to 60% from the 89.3% overall result.
“Although based on small numbers, vaccine trials have invariably demonstrated an ability of candidates to prevent severe illness. This also being true for the variants of concern,” noted Adam Barker, analyst at Shore Capital.
“The low frequency of reinfection events (with typically milder illness) and evidence for a robust immune response following infection, should provide confidence that vaccines will retain useful effectiveness against novel strains and particularly with respect to severe illness. This being particularly true given the ability of the vaccines to induce a heterogeneous immune response.”
“Data from vaccine trials doesn’t always match the real-world performance and governments will still remain cautious until they see tangible evidence of hospitalisations falling in response to vaccines.”