Biotechnology giant BioNTech’s co-founder Ugur Sahin on Tuesday said it was “highly likely” that its coronavirus vaccine would work against the mutated strain detected in the United Kingdom, reported AP. He added that the vaccine could be modified, if needed, in six weeks to tackle the new strain.

“Scientifically, it is highly likely that the immune response by this vaccine also can deal with the new virus variant,” said Sahin. “...In principle the beauty of the messenger technology is that we can directly start to engineer a vaccine which completely mimics this new mutation – we could be able to provide a new vaccine technically within six weeks.”

The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine uses messenger mRNA technology to introduce the body to the spike protein found on the outside of the coronavirus to provoke an immune response. It requires two doses, administered three weeks apart.

The Pfizer vaccine had shown to be 95% effective in preventing the disease in a late-stage trial. The vaccine was first approved in Britain on December 2, and the UK residents began receiving the shots earlier this month. The United States started the rollout of the vaccine on December 18.

However, because of the complex distribution challenges associated to the vaccine – requiring ultra-cold storage and shipping requirements – experts have raised concerns about whether its rollout would be possible in India, which lacks the necessary infrastructure. On November 24, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan had said that India “may not need” the vaccine at all, and would rely on the stocks in the country.

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Sahin said the variant detected in Britain has nine mutations, reported AFP. But, he pointed out, that the Pfizer vaccine “contains more than 1,000 amino acids, and only nine of them have changed, so that means 99% of the protein is still the same”.

He said tests were being done on the new variant and the results were expected in two weeks. “We have scientific confidence that the vaccine might protect but we will only know it if the experiment is done,” Sahin added. “We will publish the data as soon as possible.”

The new strain

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had said the new strain “may be up to 70% more transmissible than the old variant” although there was no evidence it was more deadly or led to a more severe illness. UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock warned that the new strain of the virus was “out of control” and said the situation was “deadly serious”. “It’s going to be very difficult to keep it under control until we have the vaccine rolled out,” Hancock had told Sky News.

The new variant in the UK was first seen in mid-September in London and Kent. By December, it had become the “dominant variant” in London. The new variant contains 23 different changes, many associated with how it binds to cells and enters them, reported Reuters.

Nearly a third of England’s population has entered a lockdown, four days before Christmas, as authorities try to rein in the pandemic. The new variant of the virus has spread rapidly in London and South East England.

Johnson had on Saturday asked the people to cancel their Christmas plans and stay home as the new strain was spreading more quickly. He announced a new Tier-4 level of restrictions cancelling plans for relaxed Christmas norms. London, which till now was in Tier 3 with the strict restrictions, was moved up to Tier 4, the highest level of curbs.

The mutation of the virus has worried experts across the world as drug manufacturers are still in the preliminary stages of the vaccine against Covid-19. On Sunday, Germany’s Health Minister Jens Spahn said that experts in the European Union believed the current vaccines being developed against Covid-19 will be effective against the new strain, reported AFP.