Three new, fast-spreading variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 can evade antibodies that work against the original form that sparked the pandemic, new research shows.

With few exceptions, whether the antibodies were produced in response to vaccination or natural infection, or were purified antibodies intended for use as drugs, researchers found they needed more antibody to neutralize the new variants.

The findings, from laboratory-based experiments, suggest that COVID-19 drugs and vaccines developed thus far may become less effective as the new variants become dominant, as experts say they inevitably will. The researchers looked at variants from South Africa, the United Kingdom, and Brazil.

“We’re concerned that people whom we’d expect to have a protective level of antibodies because they have had COVID-19 or been vaccinated against it, might not be protected against the new variants,” says senior author Michael S. Diamond, professor of medicine at Washington University in St. Louis.

“There’s wide variation in how much antibody a person produces in response to vaccination or natural infection. Some people produce very high levels, and they would still likely be protected against the new, worrisome variants.

“But some people, especially older and immunocompromised people, may not make such high levels of antibodies. If the level of antibody needed for protection goes up tenfold, as our data indicate it does, they may not have enough. The concern is that the people who need protection the most are the ones least likely to have it.”

“We don’t exactly know what the consequences of these new variants are going to be yet,” says Diamond, also professor of molecular microbiology and of pathology and immunology. “Antibodies are not the only measure of protection; other elements of the immune system may be able to compensate for increased resistance to antibodies. That’s going to be determined over time, epidemiologically, as we see what happens as these variants spread.

“Will we see reinfections? Will we see vaccines lose efficacy and drug resistance emerge? I hope not. But it’s clear that we will need to continually screen antibodies to make sure they’re still working as new variants arise and spread and potentially adjust our vaccine and antibody-treatment strategies.”

Read the full article about COVID-19 variants by Tamara Bhandari at Futurity.