A new variant of coronavirus has sparked panic and travel bans — but experts say COVID-19 vaccines should still work against it. Here's why.

  • A new coronavirus strain has been discovered with 23 mutations.
  • Seventeen of these could be important — affecting the virus' behavior — but we don't know for sure.
  • UK officials are concerned about the mutated virus' spread, putting London, the south-east and east England into lockdown. Other countries have imposed travel bans on the UK.
  • However, experts say it's unlikely that the mutations will stop vaccines from working against COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. 
  • One expert said this is because coronavirus infection — or having the vaccine — causes a number of immune reactions in the body. He said that it's predicted some of the mutations present in this new variant will affect some of the sites causing immune responses, but not all of them.
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A new coronavirus strain called VUI 202012/01  — Variant Under Investigation, year 2020, month 12, variant 01 — has been discovered. Its rapid spread has been blamed for sending parts of the UK into lockdown and has caused growing international concern, with multiple countries imposing travel restrictions on the UK.

There have been 23 documented changes to the virus in this particular strain, 17 of which might be important because they could affect the virus' behavior. Eight of these alterations are related to the spike protein, the part of the virus that it uses to infect cells. 

The spike protein is the part of the virus that vaccines from Pfizer and BioNTech, Moderna, and AstraZeneca all target to protect people against COVID-19  — the disease caused by the virus.

But experts in the US and UK have reassured the public that the new variant is unlikely to stop the vaccines from working.

"We don't have any particular reason to think that immunizing with the present vaccines is going to be less effective against the different variants that are circulating, including [VUI 202012/01]," said Dr. Adam Finn, professor of pediatrics at Imperial College London, in a briefing to reporters on Monday.

He said that scientists at locations such as Porton Down —  the UK's top-secret laboratory where scientists research chemical weapons and deadly diseases — are trying to work out the details of what the mutations mean, with results expected in a few weeks.  

"It's a matter of immediate importance," Finn said.

In the meantime, here's what you need to know about the impact of the variant on vaccines. 

Virus mutations happen

The more a virus multiplies, the more mistakes it can make when copying itself. That's why variants are common.

"These things happen," Dr. Bharat Pankhania, a senior consultant in Communicable Disease Control at the University of Exeter, told Business Insider. 

"Some of these will be in our favor, some won't," he added.

When it comes to this particular new mutation, Pankhania said more time was needed to characterize it. 

We know that the variant probably doesn't affect disease severity — however, since the mutation affects the spike protein, it could make it easier for the virus to get inside human cells, making it more infectious. This hasn't yet been confirmed.

Pankhania said that preventing infections with measures like social distancing and immunization therefore remains fundamental.

COVID-19 vaccines should still work

Vaccines work by prepping the immune system so that it works more effectively when a certain infection is encountered.

Pfizer's vaccine for COVID-19 is an mRNA-type vaccine that targets the spike protein — this means it contains a genetic code that causes the body to produce a spike protein, which prompts the immune system to then mount a response against it. That way, the next time you come across that spike protein, the immune system should be prepared. 

This vaccine is being rolled out in the US, UK, and Europe. The vaccines from Moderna and AstraZeneca also target the spike protein.

Pfizer told Business Insider in a statement on Monday that the identification of a new variant of the coronavirus doesn't impact the vaccine's rollout. However, Pfizer is monitoring the sequence changes to assess whether immunized people generate an immune response to this new strain. 

The boss of BioNTech, Pfizer's German partner, said Tuesday he was confident the vaccine would work against the variant.

Dr. Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, said in a briefing on Monday that despite mutations in the spike protein in the variant strain, it's unlikely to stop vaccines from working. This is because coronavirus infection — or having the vaccine — causes a number of immune reactions in the body. One reason for this is that the spike protein contains multiple sites that all generate a different immune response. 

"It's predicted that some of the mutations that are present in this new variant will affect some of those sites," Openshaw said. "It doesn't seem likely that it will affect all [of the sites]."

"It's much more important that we go on vaccinating people against strains that we already know are affected by the vaccine," Stephen Evans, professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said in the briefing on Monday .

Now that we have COVID-19 vaccines, it'll be easier to develop reformulated versions

The flu vaccine has to be reformulated every year. The same could someday become true for COVID-19 vaccines if many more mutations develop: Scientists wouldn't have to go back to square one for vaccine development.

"It's a lot easier than first time round, because you can just substitute the sequence that the vaccines are based on, they don't have to go through the regulatory process from the beginning," Imperial's Finn said. 

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