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Covaxin is effective against UK variant, shows study: what this means for India

India has seen a rising number of cases of infection with the UK variant; on January 23, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare said that at least 150 people have tested positive for the mutant strain.

Written by Anuradha Mascarenhas , Prabha Raghavan | New Delhi, Pune |
Updated: January 28, 2021 6:55:53 am
covaxin, covaxin efficacy, covaxin vaccine, covaxin covid vaccine, covaxin news, covaxin coronavirus vaccine, covid vaccine, coronavirus vaccine, covid vaccine, covid 19 vaccine, covid 19 vaccine newsBharat Biotech's vaccine at District General Hospital in Aundh, Pune (Express Photo: Arul Horizon)

Covaxin, the indigenously developed vaccine against the novel coronavirus, can work against the new UK variant, a new study by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and National Institute of Virology (NIV) has said.

Study finding

Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech conducted a test of its Covid-19 vaccine, Covaxin, against the UK strain of the virus. The “plaque reduction neutralization” test (PRNT50) involved collecting the serum — the protein-rich liquid separated from blood after it is clotted — of 38 people who had received the vaccine. The sera was then tested against the UK variant of the virus as well as a heterologous strain of the virus that Covaxin was previously tested against.

“Our study evidently highlighted comparable neutralization activity of vaccinated individuals’ sera against variant as well as heterologous SARS-CoV-2 strains. Importantly, sera from the vaccine recipients could neutralise the UK-variant strains discounting the uncertainty around potential escape,” the researchers said in the study published online on Tuesday in bioRxiv, a preprint server for biology. (‘Neutralization of UK-variant VUI-202012/01 with COVAXIN vaccinated human serum’)

“It was reassuring from the PRNT50 data generated in our laboratory that the indigenous BBV152/ COVAXIN, following its rollout in vaccination program, could be expected to work against the new UK-variant. It is unlikely that the mutation 501Y would be able to dampen the potential benefits of the vaccine in concern,” the study said.

Significance

India has seen a rising number of cases of infection with the UK variant; on January 23, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare said that at least 150 people have tested positive for the mutant strain. This is a concern not just because the UK strain has been found to spread more quickly than the more common strain of the virus, but also because British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had said on January 22 that there was “some evidence” to suggest that this variant was associated with a “higher degree of mortality”, making it more deadly.

The UK strain was one of the main reasons that Bharat Biotech received restricted emergency approval in India despite Covaxin not having completed enough large-scale human trials to show even interim information on its efficacy (ability to bring down symptomatic Covid-19 cases in those vaccinated).

The pre-print findings are the first set of evidence of the vaccine’s ability to work against the UK mutant strain.

ICMR Director General Dr Balram Bhargava told The Indian Express that the data generated in the laboratory was “reassuring”.

“If the mortality is 10 per 1,000 for the regular one then it is 13 for this variant of coronavirus. Hence, it is great that we were able to isolate and culture the UK variant within a week’s time and test with sera of Covaxin-vaccinated people. It is reassuring that the vaccine can work against the new UK variant,” Dr Bhargava said.

Dr Samiran Panda, one of the researchers and head of ICMR’s Epidemiology and Communicable Diseases division, said, “The serum samples were collected from vaccine recipients and have been able to neutralise the UK variant, which is good news.”

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Caution

The findings of the study are still to be peer-reviewed. While the data collected from 38 people looks promising, there is no clarity on the vaccine’s efficacy yet, as it is being administered to priority groups in “clinical trial” mode. Greater clarity is expected to emerge later this year, when Bharat Biotech will have enough information to say how effective the vaccine is in preventing those inoculated from showing serious symptoms, even if they do get infected.

Also, the pre-print findings show the vaccine’s ability to protect against the UK strain only. There are various other mutant strains of the virus that pose a threat to vaccination programmes around the world, with a variant from South Africa being of equal concern.

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