COVID-19: Israeli Study Suggests South African Variant Can Escape Protection from Pfizer/BioNTech Vaccine

The B.1.351 coronavirus variant originally identified in South Africa can break through the protection conferred by Pfizer/BioNTech’s mRNA vaccine, Israeli scientists have found. A team from Tel Aviv University and the Clalit healthcare organization attempted a first-of-its-kind study to confirm whether new variants, B.1.351 and B.1.1.7 (originally identified in the UK), can bypass vaccine protection in a real-world setting.

Israel initiated mass vaccination of its citizens in mid-December 2020 and has since administered the most COVID-19 vaccine doses per capita in the world. By March 2021, around 80% of the eligible population were vaccinated with Pfizer/BioNTech’s BNT162b2.


High Prevalence of SA Variant in Vaccinated Individuals

The study compared almost 400 people who contracted COVID-19, 14 days or more after receiving at least one dose of BNT162b2, against the same number of unvaccinated patients. Although the number of B.1.351 cases was less than 1% in the study participants, data shows that the variant’s prevalence was eight times higher in patients who received two doses of the vaccine (5.4% vs. 0.7% in unvaccinated control).

“We found a disproportionately higher rate of the South African variant among people vaccinated with a second dose, compared to the unvaccinated group. This means that the South African variant is able, to some extent, to break through the vaccine’s protection,” said Tel Aviv University’s Adi Stern.


Low Sample Size

Previously, several lab studies reported the poor protection offered by some vaccines against the South African variant. Although conducted with a meager sample size, this Israeli study provides the first real-world data showing that the vaccine is less effective against B.1.351.

The authors admitted that the study does not include an adequate sample size of the original SARS-CoV-2 strain and B.1.351 variants. But they attributed it to the rapid increase in B.1.1.7 cases and the low prevalence of B.1.351 cases in Isreal since January 2021. The study results published in the medRxiv preprint server are yet to be peer-reviewed. It remains to be seen if these claims could be validated with more data.

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