S. African COVID variant better at bypassing Pfizer/BioNTech jab: Israeli study

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The South African variant of coronavirus can “break through” the defenses of the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine better than other forms of the virus, Israeli experts said on Sunday.

However, one of the authors told AFP that while the study showed that the variant was relatively successful in infecting vaccinated people, it did not provide any data on whether vaccines could cause serious illness.

The study by Tel Aviv University and Clalit Health Services, Israel’s largest healthcare provider, compared 400 unvaccinated people infected with COVID-19 with 400 partially or fully vaccinated people who were also infected with the virus.

The South African variant accounted for less than one percent of coronavirus cases in Israel, according to the study, which was published as a draft on Saturday and is currently under peer review.

Among the 150 people in the study who were fully vaccinated and had COVID-19, “the prevalence rate (the South African variant) was eight times higher than the rate of non-vaccinated people (individuals),” the study says.

“This means that the Pfizer BioNtech vaccine, while very protective, is unlikely to offer the same level of protection against the South African (B.1.351) variant of the coronavirus,” the study added.

“The South African variant can break the vaccine’s protection to some extent,” said Professor Adi Stern of the Shmunis School of Biomedicine and Cancer Research at Tel Aviv University, one of the study’s authors.

Stern told AFP Sunday that the study did not assess whether the fully vaccinated Israelis with the South African variant – a total of eight people – developed a serious illness.

“Since we found a very small number of vaccines infected with B.1.351, it is statistically meaningless to report disease outcomes,” he said.

Preventive measures

Two studies published in February in the New England Journal of Medicine by major vaccine manufacturers Pfizer / BioNTech and Moderna showed that post-vaccination post-vaccination antibodies were less pronounced in people exposed to the South African variant, indicating decreased protection.

The Israeli study was the first real-world assessment of the South African variant’s ability to bypass a vaccine.

In Israel’s vaccination campaign, 5.3 million people received a first dose, while 4.9 million, or 53 percent of the population, had two shots.

A previous study by Clalit of 1.2 million Israelis found that the Pfizer / BioNTech shock offered 94 percent protection against COVID-19.

After successfully introducing vaccination, Israel relaxed many of its restrictions, but various measures remain in place, including the wearing of masks and a “green passport” system that only allows those vaccinated to enter certain locations.

Ran Balicer of Clalit, one of the study’s authors, told AFP the results could help educate states about how best to relax restrictions.

According to Balicer, vaccinations, as well as wearing masks and other safety measures, have likely still helped limit the spread of the South African variant, although they can apparently breach the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine.

A combination of all of these factors “most likely prevents the strains of the virus, including the South African, from spreading significantly in Israel,” he said.

“As we reduce non-pharmaceutical interventions, we need to do so gradually to ensure we don’t cross a threshold that would allow these variants to spread.”

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