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The World Health Organization has officially declared the new coronavirus strain in India a variant of concern. The agency says the variant is likely more transmissible than other versions of the virus, and it is fueling a devastating surge across India. In the past month, scientists have been rushing to see if the COVID-19 vaccines are still effective against this variant. NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff explains what they found.
MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: The new variant that emerged in India has more than a dozen mutations, but two mutations in particular have been most concerning. Ravi Gupta is a microbiologist at Cambridge University. He says these mutations are found on an important part of the virus where the immune system attacks.
RAVI GUPTA: So that's why they were labeled a double mutant. It had these two big mutations in two big places, and that's what caused all the worries.
DOUCLEFF: Each of these mutations have cropped up separately in other parts of the world - one in California, one in Brazil. And studies have shown that by themselves, each one gives the virus an advantage against the immune system. It reduces the ability of antibodies to fight off the virus.
GUPTA: The individual mutations reduced susceptibility to neutralization by vaccine antibodies, so it does sort of cause a drop in responses to vaccines.
DOUCLEFF: So what happens when the two mutations come together? Would it be double trouble for vaccines?
GUPTA: We've set up quickly to try and figure out whether this was real.
DOUCLEFF: Gupta and his team took antibodies from people vaccinated with Pfizer and then looked to see how much the two mutations together decrease the ability of people's antibodies to kill the virus. What they saw is hopeful. The double mutant behaved a lot like the single mutant. It wasn't double trouble.
GUPTA: So there didn't seem to be this addition of one on top of the other. And that was really quite - I think that's really important because that's what the assumption has been that's caused all the panic.
DOUCLEFF: The team published their findings online Sunday, and they agree well with results from other research groups. Together, the data suggests the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will still work well against the variant in India. The shots may be less effective at warding off illness, but they should still continue to offer high protection from death and severe illness. This is great news for the U.S., where these vaccines are available. But in India, the most common vaccine is the one developed by AstraZeneca. Rakesh Mishra is an adviser for the Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, India. He says scientists there have been working hard to figure out how well the AstraZeneca vaccine works against this new variant.
RAKESH MISHRA: So they are doing this now for almost a month now. Our aim is to see with reasonable certainty that this vaccine is protective.
DOUCLEFF: They're running experiments similar to the ones Gupta performed. They haven't published their results yet, but Mishra says the results look similar to what Gupta found. Overall, that AstraZeneca vaccine should protect against severe cases of COVID-19 and death.
MISHRA: It was very, very important and we were very relieved, actually, because this means this variant has not managed to resist the vaccine.
DOUCLEFF: And the world has once again gotten lucky. Our best tools to fight COVID-19 not only work, but they are still powerful.
Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.