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What now? Nearly on cusp of COVID-19 conquest, virus mutates

‘Nothing changes for now’ say relevant parties

A computer-generated image of coronavirus (123rf)
A computer-generated image of coronavirus (123rf)
Coronavirus variants spreading out of the UK and South Africa are new obstacles for companies struggling to bring forth viable treatments and vaccines for the COVID-19 pandemic.

The outstanding question is: Are the treatments and vaccines thus far developed still effective against the coronavirus variants?

According to the World Health Organization, the UK variant has a genetic mutation in the S gene, making its binding affinity to human receptor cells more powerful. Simply put, this makes the virus more contagious.

UK health authorities have said the variant’s transmissibility increased 70 percent. 

Whether the virus became more deadly, however, is something authorities are still in the process of learning.

South Korea has signed vaccine procurement deals with Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson‘s Janssen and AstraZeneca, while waiting on the results of a phase 2 clinical trial of an antibody treatment candidate by local firm Celltrion.

“We cannot say anything definitively about the Celltrion treatment -- whether we may require more data to prove its efficacy or not -- this is not something we can give comment on at this point with the dearth of information we have,” a representative of the Ministry of Health told The Korea Herald.

“We believe the effects of the variants on treatments and vaccine developing to be minimal,” the official said.

Celltrion‘s antibody treatment, aimed to alleviate symptoms of lightly affected COVID-19 patients to deter their aggravation to severe cases, is set to apply for conditional use of the drug in Korea before the end of the year.

Celltrion’s treatment is to become the homegrown treatment option available in the country at the fastest rate.

The Celltrion antibody targets the S2 gene of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is an area of minimal mutation and therefore potent against variants, according to Celltrion Chairman Seo Jung-jin’s online press conference in July.

As for COVID-19 diagnostics kits, credited for having towed Korea‘s exports in 2020, there will also be no imminent operational difficulties, according to Lee Min-jun, a representative of the association of in-vitro diagnostics firms here.

Lee told The Korea Herald that “There will occur no gap in the COVID-19 tests due to the recent variants.”

“Most of the extant COVID-19 molecular diagnostic tools target the E, N and RDRP genes,” Lee said, “The S gene is a mutation-prone target and therefore has not been considered the anchor point for infection discernment in the first place.”

In case there is need, some firms are mulling to develop new kits to identify the new variant strains of the coronavirus, too, Lee said.

Meanwhile on Sunday, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety here announced it will expedite the vaccine and treatment screening process. For treatments, the ministry will radically shorten the 180-plus days assessment period to less than 40 days. For vaccines, it plans to accelerate the two to three months’ review period to less than 20 days.

According to the Drug Ministry, there are 15 treatments against COVID-19 being researched in Korea, including new drug research and the repurposing of existing drugs. Five domestic vaccine pipelines are being sought, albeit in the early phase 1 and phase 1/2 trials.

Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, the companies behind the vaccines that are being administered already in some major countries, are of the opinion that their vaccines will remain effective despite the fork in events.

Both companies are testing their vaccines on the new variant and will be able to offer data-based analyses on the matter within weeks.

According to news reports, BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin is quoted to have said, “scientifically, it is highly likely that the immune response by this vaccine also can deal with the new virus variants.”

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is approved for emergency use in the US, the UK, Bahrain, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Kuwait and Singapore and for conditional use in the European Union and Switzerland.

The Moderna vaccine is approved for emergency use in the US.

Since Dec. 14, the UK has dealt with a genetic mutation of the SARS-CoV-2 virus as the cause behind an infection spike.

According to the BBC, this variant had traveled out of the UK to Japan, Canada, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, France, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Australia as of Sunday.

In Korea, a man in his 80s returned from the UK on Dec. 13 and was posthumously declared a COVID-19 patient Sunday. It is as yet unknown whether he was infected with the new variant.

Korea banned flights from the UK from Dec. 23 to 31.

By Lim Jeong-yeo (kaylalim@heraldcorp.com)

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