COVID SCIENCE-Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine works against virus variants in lab; arthritis drugs improve COVID-19 survival

PUBLISHED: Fri, 08 Jan 2021 20:37:43 GMT

By Nancy Lapid

Jan 8 (Reuters) – The following is a roundup of some of the latest scientific studies on the novel coronavirus and efforts to find treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine protects against virus variants

The COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer Inc and BioNTech SE appears to protect against highly transmissible new variants of the coronavirus discovered in Britain and South Africa, a laboratory study suggests. In blood samples from vaccine recipients, scientists found the vaccine appears effective against the so-called N501Y mutation of the spike protein on the virus, according to a report posted on Thursday on bioRxiv ahead of peer review. Pfizer scientist Phil Dormitzer said the vaccine has been tested against 16 mutations, and none have really had any significant impact. “That’s the good news,” he said, before adding a note of caution. “That doesn’t mean that the 17th won’t.” Ongoing testing will be needed, experts said, to allay concerns about whether the vaccines will be protective as the virus mutates. The vaccine is based on synthetic messenger RNA technology (mRNA), as is the one from Moderna Inc. “The evidence is not conclusive but there is a lot to indicate that the existing mRNA vaccines do cover the new variants,” said Andreas Bergthaler of the Research Center for Molecular Medicine of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna. AstraZeneca Plc,, Moderna and CureVac NV are also testing their shots against the fast-spreading coronavirus variants. (

Arthritis drugs aid survival of sickest COVID-19 patients

Treating critically ill COVID-19 patients with either of two rheumatoid arthritis drugs significantly improves survival rates and shortens the time patients need intensive care, trial results show. The drugs – tocilizumab, sold as Actemra by Roche , and Kevzara (sarilumab) from Regeneron Pharmaceuticals and Sanofi – reduced death rates by 8.5 percentage points among critically ill patients. That means that for every 12 patients treated with one of the drugs, one life would be saved, said Dr. Anthony Gordon of Imperial College London, coauthor of a report posted on Thursday on medRxiv ahead of peer review. The data, from 803 severely ill patients, showed that the drugs, which suppress the body’s immune response, reduced mortality rates from 35.8% in a control group to 27.3% among patients receiving either drug. Previous studies had found no clear benefit from these drugs, but they included less severely ill patients treated at different stages in the disease. “A crucial difference,” Gordon said, “may be that in our study, critically ill patients were enrolled within 24 hours” of when their organs started to fail, which suggests the sickest patients may gain the most benefit from these drugs. (

Allergic reactions “rare” after Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine

Based on early safety monitoring, anaphylaxis and less serious allergic reactions to the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine appear to be rare, researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reported on Wednesday. Monitoring by the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System jointly run by the two agencies detected only 21 cases of the life-threatening allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis among the nearly 1.9 million first doses of the vaccine administered between Dec. 14 and Dec. 23. Most people with anaphylaxis had a history of allergies or allergic reactions, according to the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. For 71% of those with anaphylaxis, the allergic reactions occurred within 15 minutes. The agencies also received reports of 83 cases of less serious allergic reactions, including rashes, itchy skin, scratchy sensations in the throat, and mild respiratory symptoms. The CDC and FDA say they will continue to work together “to monitor for adverse events … after receipt of COVID-19 vaccines and will regularly assess the benefits and risks of vaccination.” (

Immunosuppressive medicines do not worsen COVID-19 outcomes

Medications that suppress the immune system – necessary for many chronic diseases – do not worsen outcomes of COVID-19 cases, a new study shows. Researchers looked back at 2,121 adults hospitalized for COVID-19 between March and August, including 108 who were taking the kinds of immunosuppressive drugs used to treat cancers, severe joint diseases, skin conditions, inflammatory intestinal disorders, and other serious illnesses. After accounting for patients’ general baseline health status, researchers found no significant differences between those who did or did not take immunosuppressive drugs in the risk of needing mechanical ventilation, the risk of dying, or the amount of time they were hospitalized. “Our results contribute to a growing body of evidence that should provide reassurance to clinicians and patients using chronic immunosuppressive medicines,” the researchers concluded in the report published on Thursday in Clinical Infectious Diseases. (

Open in an external browser for a Reuters graphic on vaccines and treatments in development.

(Reporting by Nancy Lapid, Michael Erman and Kate Kelland; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

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