“We understand the concern of the experts and immediately opened investigations into the B.1.1.529 variant,” the companies said.
Pfizer and BioNTech said they expected more data from lab tests in two weeks at the latest.
“This data will provide more information on whether B.1.1.529 could be an escape variant that may require adjustment of our vaccine if the variant spreads globally,” the companies said.
Pfizer and BioNTech have said they can scale their mRNA vaccine within six weeks and start shipping batches within 100 days if an escape variant is identified.
Johnson & Johnson said on Friday they were already testing their vaccine against the new variant.
“We are closely monitoring new emerging strains of COVID-19 virus with variations in the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein and are already testing the effectiveness of our vaccine against the new, rapidly spreading variant first detected in Southern Africa, ”said J&J.
The variant, which emerged in South Africa, has around 50 mutations, more than 30 of which are on the spike protein that allows the virus to bind to human cells. The spread of the new variant is only in its early stages and it is not yet clear how serious an infection would be for a person who is vaccinated.
Several European and Asian countries have suspended flights from southern Africa in response to the variant. The UK on Thursday suspended flights from six countries in the region, and the European Commission – the executive body of the European Union – called on the 27 member states to suspend travel from southern Africa.
White House chief medical adviser Dr Anthony Fauci said on Friday that the United States was working with South African scientists to obtain the molecular makeup of the variant so that laboratory tests can be performed. These tests would help determine whether or not the variant can escape the antibody protection provided by vaccines.
Fauci said the data would help determine whether or not the United States should implement similar travel restrictions.
The strength of the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech infection vaccine waned over time, although it was still very effective in preventing hospitalizations and death. A study published in the journal Science this month found that the vaccine’s effectiveness increased from 86% to 43% from February to October.
Last Friday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention authorized booster shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for all adults. The booster dose was 95% effective in preventing symptomatic infection in people who had no signs of previous infection in a clinical trial of 10,000 participants aged 16 and older.