The situation in India is at crisis point, with hospitals across the country overwhelmed with admissions and oxygen supplies scarce. The rapid escalation is thought to be driven by two coronavirus variants spreading rampantly in the country – the B117 variant first detected in the UK and the new B1617 variant, first detected in India. The India variant is of particular concern for the country and the world because it contains two “escape” mutations that help it to evade the body’s immune responses. Meanwhile, researchers in Britain have published a chilling finding about the effectiveness of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against new variants.
As of Sunday, 34,505,380 million people had received one dose and 15,329,617 million had been given their second jab.
“For the situation of countries like the U.K., we’re saying hang on a minute, those people are doing well at the moment, and the U.K. has done well, but watch out and keep your eye on the ball for the variants because [people] are far more vulnerable than you might have expected to the variant strains,” he told a press briefing on Friday.
To gather their findings, the scientists monitored 731 British health care workers for several months last year.
About half of those in the study group had contracted COVID-19 during the first wave of the pandemic in March, 2020, while the remainder had not been infected.
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The study found that those who’d previously had a mild or even asymptomatic infection had a far higher immune response after one dose of the Pfizer vaccine than those who hadn’t been ill.
The immune response was so strong, the study noted, that it also offered good protection against the variants first detected in Britain and South Africa.
The study “is basically showing that if you’ve had prior COVID-19, and then you’ve had a single dose vaccine, you are really in a different league in terms of your immune response,” said Rosemary Boyton, a professor of immunology and respiratory medicine at Imperial College, who co-authored the study.
“It’s almost like the infection has acted as a prime and the first dose has acted as a boost.”
However, the group of volunteers who had not been infected showed a much weaker immune response to the variants after one dose.
The study showed that their level of neutralising antibodies was 11 to 25-fold lower against the B117 variant compared with the original version of the virus, “resulting in the majority of individuals falling below the protective threshold.”
The research team said their findings also likely apply to other variants in circulation, such as the P1, first detected and Brazil, and the B1617 and B1618 variants, first associated with India.
Dr Altmann said the findings are a precautionary tale as the UK continues to lift restrictions.
“One dose in terms of all of our measurable immune parameters of [the Pfizer vaccine] really does look very, very feeble and all the more so against variants,” he said.
“And yet whatever the level of immunity that it’s induced, it’s certainly been enough to have had some impact. But it’s really very, very weak compared to two doses. My message from that would be hang on in there for your second dose.”
Despite the findings, the researchers emphasise the efficacy of the current crop of vaccines, but that the public should be careful about the level of protection one jab offers.
“All I would say loud and clear is we’re definitely not saying that the vaccines are useless,” Dr Altmann said.
“We’re actually saying the vaccines are incredibly good. But what we are saying for a country for example like the UK that has the majority of its vaccinated people on one dose and also has one eye on the horizon for any incoming variants of concern, that’s a potential real vulnerability. And a solution would be to keep up your guard on the surveillance of variants and get the second dose to people.”