UWARN partners unite globally to study COVID variants

Witnessing changes in the coronavirus, scientists join to strengthen pandemic response.  

The recent recognition of new SARS-CoV-2, variants, first detected in South Africa (B.1.135, 501Y.V2), Brazil (P1) and the UK (B.1.1.7) has become an urgent global concern.  UWARN (United World Antiviral Network) partners around the world are collaborating to understand the variants’ potential to override protection from vaccinations or prior COVID-19 infections.

Network partners are taking leading roles in researching new COVID-19 variants and are working together to find answers to questions on early detection, community spread, COVID-19 re-infection, and vaccine effectiveness.

With COVID-19 variants posing a possible threat to immunization efforts, Wesley C. Van Voorhis, a member of the Alliance for Pandemic Preparedness in the Department of Global Health, is joining with WARN partners in the Republic of South Africa and Brazil to help determine ways forward for future vaccine development.

Van Voorhis and Tulio de Oliveira, lead researcher at the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform and an affiliate professor of global health at the UW School of Medicine and School of Public Health; and Alex Sigal, a faculty member of the African Health Research Institute, in Durban, South Africa, are studying whether people vaccinated with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are optimally protected from infection the new South Africa variant. 

Sigal and de Oliveira have already shown that those who previously had COVID-19 through natural infection from by the older pandemic coronavirus are not well protected against the new variant, B.1.135, first found in the Republic of South Africa.

This finding questions whether the vaccines, which are all based on the older version of the coronavirus, will protect against the new variants. When the Norovax vaccine was tested in the Republic of South Africa, it was found to be only 49% effective against the B.1.135 South Africa variant.  It was still 89% effective against the B.1.1.7 United Kingdom variant. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are not available in South Africa.  From people vaccinated in Seattle, UWARN is providing blood samples for rapid testing with the B.1.135 variant.

Van Voorhis and de Oliveira are also collaborating with the UWARN partners Luiz Alcantara and Isadora de Siqueira of FIOCRUZ in Rio de Janeiro and Salvador, Brazil.

Alcantara, de Oliveira, and de Siquiera are at the forefront of locating where the new variants emerged in parts of South Africa and along the Amazon. The researchers found that new variants arose in areas with high infection (but not reaching herd immunity), where 30-40% of the population was infected.  The findings possibly indicate that the variants are not random, but a response to a high infection rate that allowed the virus to escape human immune responses. 

Alcantara, de Oliveira and de Siquiera tipped off their UWARN partners about these findings.  They tapped the global network to share in research on detecting and mitigating variants emerging in different parts of the world.

In addition, UWARN’s Michael Gale’s research group in Seattle has started studies of the variants to understand how they provoke different immune responses. Gale is a professor of immunology at the UW School of Medicine and director of the Center for Innate Immunity and Immune Disease.  Expanding knowledge of viral immune responses is key to future vaccine development to try to get and keep the pandemic under control.

 “The use of messenger RNAs in Pfizer and Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccines means these vaccines have the ability to pivot quickly, if needed, so they can continue to be effective against COVID-19,” Van Voorhis said. “As we gain more understanding of these variants, it’s extremely important to double-down on wearing masks, avoiding crowds, washing hands and getting vaccinated when you can.”

With the pace at which significant new variants are arising, information sharing is one of the keys to staying on top of changes in the pandemic coronavirus, according to UWARN leaders.

Swiftly making available the results of genetic surveillance research around the world will help to determine the prevalence of significant mutations and enable researchers to cooperate on solutions to managing the spread of troubling variants.

UWARN unites researchers from institutions in seven countries. Its aim is to spot and confront emerging pandemic viruses. The network includes investigators from the University of Washington, including the its School of Medicine, the UW Medicine Institute of Protein Design, and the School of Public Health; Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, and collaborators at FIOCRUZ in Brazil, IRESSEF in Senegal, KRISP in South Africa, Aga Khan University in Pakistan, Chang Gung University in Taiwan, the Institute for Research in Biomedicine, Bellinzona, Switzerland; and Rockefeller University in New York City.

UWARN is funded by National Institutes of Health and is one of 10 National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease Centers within the Centers for Emerging and Reemerging Diseases Network.

Resources co-authored by Tulio deOliveira:

The Conversation: South African scientists who discovered new COVID-19 variant share what they know

Nature Medicine: Sixteen novel lineages of SARS-CoV-2 in South Africa

Written by Caroline Liou, Department of Global Health

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Tags:global health

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