The recent recognition of new COVID-19 variants, first detected in South Africa (B.1.135, 501Y.V2), Brazil (P1) and the UK (B.1.1.7) – and the variants’ potential to disrupt vaccine effectiveness and protection from prior COVID-19 infection – is an urgent concern that UWARN partners around the globe are collaborating on to understand. Network partners are taking leading roles in researching new COVID-19 variants and collaborating to find answers to questions on early detection, community spread, COVID-19 re-infection, and vaccine effectiveness.

With COVID-19 variants emerging as a possible threat to immunization efforts, Wesley C. Van Voorhis, a member of the University of Washington’s Alliance for Pandemic Preparedness in the Department of Global Health, is collaborating with Network partners in the Republic of South Africa (RSA) and Brazil to shed light on ways forward for future vaccine development. Van Voorhis and Tulio de Oliveira, lead researcher at the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform, or KRISP, and UW Affiliate Professor, Global Health, and Alex Sigal, a faculty member of the African Health Research Institute, in Durban, RSA are collaborating to find answers to whether people vaccinated with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are optimally  protected from infection the new South Africa variant. 

Drs. Sigal and de Oliveira have already shown that those who previously had COVID through being naturally infected by the older virus are not well protected against the new variant, B.1.135, first found in RSA.  So this questions whether the vaccines, which are all based on the old virus, will protect against the new variants. Indeed, the Norovax vaccine was tested in RSA and was found to be only 49% effective against the B.1.135 variant, but was still 89% effective against the B.1.1.7 variant first found in the UK. In South Africa, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are not available so UWARN is providing crucial blood samples from those who have been vaccinated in the Seattle area so they can be tested rapidly with the B.1.135.

Van Voorhis and de Oliveira are also collaborating with the Network’s partners in Brazil, Dr’s Luiz Alcantara and Isadora de Siqueira of FIOCRUZ in Rio de Janeiro and Salvador, Brazil. Drs. de Oliveira, Alcantara, and de Siquiera are at the forefront of researching the new variants that emerged in parts of South Africa and along the Amazon. Both researchers found that new variants emerged in areas with high infection (but not reaching herd immunity), where 30-40% of the population was infected – possibly indicating that the variants are not random but a response to the high infection rate allowing the virus to escape immune response. Drs. de Oliveira, Alcantara, and de Siquiera tipped off UWARN partners about their findings and tapped the global network to collaborate and share research around detecting and mitigating emerging variants in different parts of the world.

In addition, UWARN’s Michael Gale’s research group in Seattle has already initiated work with the variants to understand how they generate different immune responses and UWARN international partners facilitating access to these viruses in collaboration with UWARN international partner.  The research is expanding understanding of viral immune responses, which is key to future vaccine development.

 “The use of messenger RNAs in Pfizer and Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccines means these vaccines have the ability to pivot quickly, if needed, so they can continue to be effective against COVID-19. As we gain more understanding of these variants, it’s extremely important to double-down on wearing masks, avoiding crowds, washing hands and getting vaccinated when you can,” advised Van Voorhis.

With the pace at which significant new variants are emerging, information-sharing is one of the keys to staying on top of the ever-changing virus and setting the stage for swift sharing of genetic surveillance research around the world, helping to determine how prevalent mutations of the virus are and working together to research solutions.

UWARN includes researchers from institutions in seven countries and its aim is to spot and confront emerging pandemic viruses. The network includes investigators from the University of Washington, including its School of Medicine, the UW Medicine Institute of Protein Design, and the School of Public Health; Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, and collaborators at FIOCRUZ in Brazil, IRESSEF in Senegal, KRISP in South Africa, Aga Khan University in Pakistan),Chang Gung University in Taiwan, the Institute for Research in Biomedicine, Bellinzona, Switzerland, and Rockefeller University in New York City. UWARN is funded by NIH and serves as one of 10 National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease Centers within the Centers for Emerging and Reemerging Diseases Network (CREID).

Related resources co-authored by Tulio deOliveira:

The Conversation: South African scientists who discovered new COVID-19 variant share what they know

Nature Medicine: Sixteen novel lineages of SARS-CoV-2 in South Africa