The COVID-19 variant discovered in South Africa can “break through” Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine to some extent, a real-world data study released on Saturday found, although its prevalence in the country is low and the research has not been peer reviewed.
The study in Israel compared almost 400 people who had tested positive for COVID-19, 14 days or more after they received one or two doses of the vaccine, against the same number of unvaccinated people with the disease.
It matched age and gender, among other characteristics.
The South African variant, B.1.351, was found to make up about 1 percent of all the COVID-19 cases across all the people studied, the study by Israel’s largest healthcare provider Clalit and Tel Aviv University said.
However, among patients who had received two doses of the vaccine, the variant’s prevalence rate was eight times higher than among those who were unvaccinated — 5.4 percent versus 0.7 percent.
This suggests the vaccine is less effective against the South African variant, compared with the original COVID-19 virus and a variant first identified in the UK that has come to comprise nearly all COVID-19 cases in Israel, the researchers said.
“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,” Tel Aviv University professor Adi Stern said.
However, the researchers cautioned that the study only had a small sample size of people infected with the South African variant because of its rarity in Israel.
They also said that the research was not intended to deduce overall vaccine effectiveness against any variant, as it only looked at people who had already tested positive for COVID-19, not at overall infection rates.
Pfizer and BioNTech could not be immediately reached for comment outside of business hours.
The companies said on April 1 that their vaccine was about 91 percent effective at preventing COVID-19, citing updated trial data that included participants inoculated for up to six months.
In respect to the South African variant, they said that among a group of 800 study volunteers in South Africa, where B.1.351 is widespread, there were nine cases of COVID-19, all of which occurred among participants who were given a placebo.
Of those nine cases, six were infected with the South African variant.
Some previous studies have indicated that the Pfizer-BioNTech shot was less potent against the B.1.351 variant than against other variants of COVID-19, but still offered a robust defense.
While the results of the study might cause concern, the low prevalence of the South African strain was encouraging, Stern said.
“Even if the South African variant does break through the vaccine’s protection, it has not spread widely through the population,” said Stern, adding that the British variant might be “blocking” the spread of the South African strain.
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