GALVESTON

The Pfizer-developed vaccine might be effective in fighting mutant strains of COVID-19, according to new research from the University of Texas Medical Branch.

The research offers hope emerging strains of the virus, which are spreading quickly in the United Kingdom and South Africa, can be kept under control as more people are vaccinated. The strains are 70 percent more infectious than the initial virus that caused a global pandemic, health authorities warn.

One of the mutated viruses was identified in Harris County this week.

Researchers at the medical branch worked with Pfizer and BioNTech to research the vaccine’s effectiveness against the mutant viruses.

The research determined antibodies created by the Pfizer vaccine effectively neutralize the mutated strains.

“The antibodies can prevent the virus from infecting cells,” said Pei-Yong Shi, a virologist and professor of human genetics at the medical branch.

Medical branch researchers studied the effects of the mutant strains on blood taken from people who had received the vaccine.

The medical branch has been researching mutations of the virus for more than six months, Shi said.

In April, his lab announced it had succeeded in creating a variant of the virus that glowed neon green, allowing researchers to determine whether vaccines are effective against the virus.

The lab also had focused on the spike protein, the part of the virus that helps it stick to and infect cells. Viruses naturally mutate, and some variants of the virus have developed stickier spikes.

Before the pandemic, Shi’s research focused on entirely different types of virus, including Ebola and Zika. But with the the emergence of the coronavirus, he shifted gears.

“Since the beginning of the last year, the whole world has been paying attention to the virus,” he said. “This is why, as a virologist, we feel obligated to work on this.”

The new research comes when worries about mutated viruses landed closer to home. A mutant strain of the virus was identified Thursday in a COVID patient in Harris County.

Officials said they believed the variant was spreading in Harris County. As of Friday morning, the mutated virus hadn’t been identified in any Galveston County residents, according to the Galveston County Health District.

The medical branch’s research was published in the preprint server bioRxiv. It hasn’t been peer-reviewed.

John Wayne Ferguson: 409-683-5226; john.ferguson@galvnews.com or on Twitter @johnwferguson.

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