The coronavirus variants that originated in the U.K. and South Africa are worrisome given their increased infection rate. Fortunately, at least for now, the vaccines from Moderna (MRNA 0.15%) and from Pfizer (PFE -0.90%) and BioNTech (BNTX -0.02%) appear to be protecting people. In this video from Motley Fool Live, recorded on Jan. 25, Corinne Cardina, chief of the healthcare and cannabis bureau, and Fool.com contributor Brian Orelli discuss the laboratory tests suggesting the vaccines may protect people from the variants and the steps the companies are taking in case they aren't.
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Corinne Cardina: Of course, there's been a lot of headlines about the coronavirus variants. It was last week we got some updates from Pfizer and BioNTech, we'll also talk about Moderna's news this morning on this topic. I want to dive into the Pfizer-BioNTech updates. They cited a study that has not yet been peer reviewed. But it says that their vaccine remains effective against the U.K. strain. There are still ongoing studies looking at the South African variant, which experts have been more concerned about. They gave that update. But Dr. Fauci said last week he is concerned that the vaccines that are already being administered maybe less effective. They may still fight against the new strains but those impressive numbers in the 90% may be going down. He emphasized that it doesn't mean we shouldn't vaccinate. In fact, it means that we should definitely vaccinate because it's more important if that's true. All that to say Brian, what is the latest on the variants that investors need to know?
Brian Orelli: The problem with this Pfizer-BioNTech data is that it's really hard to study. Pfizer's doing lab experiments. They're taking antibodies out of patients that have been vaccinated and then looking and seeing whether those antibodies can block the virus in a test tube or Petri dish from infecting cells.
What you'd really like to do is test whether the people who've been vaccinated get the variance of the virus in the real-world and that's much harder to do because right now, first of all, there's going to be a small number of the people to get the COVID-19. Only a small number are actually going to get the variant and then on top of that, there's the issue of the placebo group going away as those people get the vaccine and then now you don't have anything to compare it to, so you can say when this number of people got infected but what does that mean? I think that's the difficult problem here and where Fauci is different than Pfizer. I think we definitely need to continue with the vaccination because it will also decrease the replication rate and during each replication the virus has a chance of mutating. With each patient and each cell that gets infected you have a chance of creating an even different variant and those variants might actually not be blocked by the vaccines.
Cardina: Yes, that's a great point. Moderna gave an update this morning and they said they are planning to start clinical trials and they're looking at two different things. The first thing is an altered booster version of its COVID-19 vaccine aimed at the South African variant. The second thing is that they are going to test an additional booster shot of the vaccine that they already have. They're looking at changing that second dose and then they're looking at adding a third dose as two potential options to deal with the South African variant. What else did Moderna tell us this morning?
Orelli: Again, they ran laboratory testing, that we talked about with Pfizer. There was a six-fold reduction in neutralizing antibody levels for the South African variant compared to the original. The antibodies from the patients didn't block the virus. It took six times as many much antibodies to block the same amount of virus as the original. That's believed to still be high enough -- that level of antibodies is believed to be high enough to protect patients. Then they didn't see much of an impact on the U.K. variant. They haven't released data yet. They're going to put it in the paper, and I think it's already been submitted to a preprint. That's probably good that the U.K. variant isn't as bad since it has been believed to be more transmissible. They said the booster was out of an abundance of caution, which seems reasonable given how the pandemic has gone. That getting ahead of it seems reasonable use of resources.
Cardina: Definitely. You mentioned genomics surveillance earlier. I want to talk a little bit about something that Illumina's CEO said on CNBC last week. The CEO said that the U.S. is behind on tracking these mutations compared to other countries. Do we know the reason for that and why is genomics surveillance so important?
Orelli: Genomic surveillance is important because you need to know the variants that they're coming out. As we said each time the virus replicates there's a chance that it might create a new mutation and so you've got to track these mutations and a lot of these mutations won't do anything and some of the mutations will be deleterious and those will get selected again. You won't see those show up in the population as increasing.
I think the reason why we don't have as much surveillance in U.S. is just money. It's a lot cheaper to do a diagnostic test than it is to do a full genome sequencing of the, of the genome. Just to test somebody whether they're positive it's a lot faster and quicker, just to do the PCR tests, which doesn't give you the information on the variant. It just tells you whether the virus is, there or not. Hopefully the U.S. will dedicate some more resources because it's pretty clear than we need those.