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Image of nurse with vaccine vial from BBC News Russia

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The Sputnik vaccine may be less effective at preventing infection with the South African strain of coronavirus. Scientists from the United States and Argentina came to this conclusion after analyzing the neutralizing ability of the sera of those vaccinated with the Russian vaccine. But Sputnik still protects against a severe form of the disease, the authors emphasize.

The results of this study have been published as a preprint and have not yet been peer-reviewed, meaning that the conclusions are published for preview and discussion in the scientific community.

On Friday, April 2, the day before the study was published, the head of the Gamaleya Research Center for Epidemiology and Microbiology, the University of California, was quoted as saying. Gamaleya" Alexander Gintsburg said in an interview with RIA Novosti that Sputnik protects against the South African strain of the coronavirus.

"Against the British strain was tested - 100 percent protection. There is also protection against the South African strain, and we are continuing to study it," Ginzburg said.

"The findings are very weak because one cannot carry the surrogate test data to the situation with the SARS-CoV-2 virus itself without significant reservations," a representative of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) told the BBC.

He said the results of the Gamaleya Center's own study, which "will be based on a much larger sample than the sample of 12 people used by American scientists," will be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal in May. "And will show greater efficacy of the Russian vaccine against new coronavirus strains, including the South African variant, than other vaccines, including the Pfizer vaccine," he believes.

What did the scientists find?

The team of authors, led by Benhur Lee of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center, Jeremy Kamil of Louisiana State University Health Sciences and Claudia Peradontes of Argentina's National Administration of Laboratories and Institutes of Health, explain the motivation behind their study by saying that the new coronavirus strains identified could prevent vaccines from bringing the pandemic under control.

The gradual accumulation of mutations that elude neutralizing antibodies affects collective immunity and spreads to the unvaccinated, some of whom will be susceptible to severe or fatal illness.

Three strains, called "variants of concern," or "variants of concern," are of particular concern to scientists. They are all believed to be capable of eluding immune response and thus more effectively infecting even those who are over-infected and vaccinated. These are strains that have been dubbed "British," "Brazilian," and "South African" based on the territory where they have been found.

The latter two had previously shown a departure from neutralizing antibodies, causing a second wave of disease in many regions and leading to documented cases of reinfection, the scientists said.

Researchers from the United States and Argentina took serum samples from Argentines vaccinated with Sputnik and tested its neutralizing response against both the whole South African strain and the variant with the E484K mutation in the S-protein. Presumably, this mutation helps the virus evade the immune response and may reduce vaccine efficacy. This mutation has been found in all "variants of concern."

During Phase III studies of the Russian Sputnik vaccine, which took place in Russia from September 7 to November 24, 2020, none of the strains mentioned above or others containing the E484K mutation were distributed in Russia, the scientists noted.

Since Sputnik is now widely used not only in Russia, but also in Argentina, Chile and Hungary, where some of these and new lines carrying the E484K mutation are more widespread, it is important to evaluate the neutralizing activity of the vaccine, they write.

The scientists calculated that the neutralizing activity of Sputnik against the South African strain B.1.351 in the sera studied was reduced 6.1-fold, and against the strain with the E484K mutation, 2.8-fold. In one case, according to the study, the neutralizing reaction against B.1.351 did not occur at all, in seven cases it was reduced and only in four cases it was complete.

"Sputnik's resistance to the most problematic South African strain was noticeably higher than Pfizer's according to the same article," says the RFPI representative. For comparison, the article cites the results of the experiment with sera of vaccinated with Moderna and BioNTech vaccines, which showed a decrease in neutralization by 6.5-8.6 times.

The scientists note that the sera gave qualitatively different responses of neutralizing antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. At the same time, the Russian vaccine was as effective against the British variant of the coronavirus as it was against the original strain, the scientists write.

The authors emphasize that Sputnik is likely to remain highly effective in preventing a severe form of Covid-19 even in the case of the strain from South Africa.

"The Sputnik vaccine has proven to be the most effective vaccine in terms of numbers of viral neutralizing activity against various strains," emphasizes a representative of RDIF. - Only in an additional test using not live SARS-Cov-2 coronavirus, but a vesicular stomatitis virus surrogate (scientists used this virus as the basis where they encoded the S protein of the coronavirus - BBC), the authors of the preprint managed to see the difference not in favor of Sputnik V in relation to the South African variant".

The paper indicates that one of its main authors, Jeremy Kamil, is a consultant to BioNTech on coronavirus mutations. The RFPI finds it "strange" that the paper does not cite data from the same test for Pfizer's vaccine. "It's impossible to believe that this was done by accident," a representative of the RDIF said.

The BBC Russian Service sent Kamil an inquiry about the conflict of interest. The scientist responded that he has not yet "received a cent" from BioNTech. "They just invited me to work on an 'expert panel' to advise them on how to update their vaccines to fight variants of the coronavirus, and I accepted the position. The panel has not yet met [to discuss]," Kamil clarified in response to an inquiry.

"I would like to point out that Dr. Benhur Lee declined the same invitation from BioNTech, and he is the responsible author, and he received the sera from Dr. Peradones (co-author of the article from the Argentine Ministry of Health), and he and his excellent team were the ones doing the calculations. My role was to spur [the work] and help his team add the spike protein variants B.1.351 and B.1.1.7, and make other single substitutions," the scientist said.

"I would like to go on record as saying that I think the Sputnik V vaccine is excellent and will save hundreds, if not thousands, of lives around the world. It's a great success that should be honored. But I also believe that all existing vaccines can be improved. I hope that all vaccine manufacturers will keep track of the newest variants [virus] and continue, with the help of their teams of experienced and talented scientists, to help the world beat this pandemic," Kamil said.

Why be wary of a strain from South Africa?

The South African strain was first discovered in South Africa last December. It became dominant during the second wave of coronavirus in South Africa. In studying it, scientists concluded that it was somewhat capable of bypassing the immune defenses of both over-infected and inoculated people. This is because the virus mutates in the S-protein, which is responsible for the "tenacity" of the virus.

In the middle of March this year, the South African strain was also found in Russia. Rospotrebnadzor claimed that it was found in two samples out of more than eight thousand studied.

The problem with the South African strain was not only with the Russian vaccine. In March, the journal Nature published a study (also preliminary, unreviewed data) claiming that the percentage of neutralizing South African variant antibodies was 12.4 times lower for the Moderna vaccine and 10.3 times lower for the Pfizer vaccine compared to the original variant of the virus. The researchers took existing forms of the variant taken from people infected with the virus.

A double-blind, placebo-controlled study of the effectiveness of the AstraZeneca vaccine (renamed Vaxzevria last week) against variant B.1.351 was released in mid-March, involving about 1,500 people. It concluded that the vaccine does not protect against the mild to moderate course of Covid-19.

However, the neutralization response was better in those who received the vaccine than in those who received the placebo. Mild to moderate disease developed in 23 of 717 who received the placebo and in 19 of 750 who received the placebo. Thirty-nine of the 42 people who got the disease had the South African strain of coronavirus. Scientists estimated the effectiveness of the AstraZeneca (Vaxzevria) vaccine against this variant to be 10%.

Vaccination of the population against coronavirus is now actively going on in the world. Therefore, questions constantly arise as to how effective it is and how long immunity will last after it.

This directly affects how quickly humanity will be able to return to the life it had before the pandemic. New strains significantly delay this point, as the virus learns to bypass immune defenses - and in some cases successfully does so with both the previously over-infected and the vaccinated.

Since vaccination in most countries (in Europe and Russia in particular) is slow (compared to the U.S., U.K., and Israel, for example), there are new opportunities for strains to emerge.

"The slow build-up of immune people is an ideal situation for virus mutations, because under such conditions, on the one hand, selection pressure begins to act on it, and on the other, there is enough time to adapt," writes molecular biologist Irina Yakutenko in her Telegram channel.

"If we quickly build up the number of immune people, we will interrupt most chains of infection, the virus will not be able to jump from person to person and change. And if we inoculate, or overinoculate slowly, we create ideal conditions for the emergence of new varieties of the virus," the scientist writes.

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