Scientists have identified an “escape mutant” that may decrease the efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines.

The mutation — called E484K — has been found in a variant of the coronavirus first spotted in South Africa two months ago. That variant has now spread to 12 other countries.

Penny Moore, associate professor at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases in South Africa, called the mutation “alarming.”

“We fear this mutation might have an impact, and what we don’t know is the extent of the impact,” she said.

E484K is called an “escape mutant” because it’s been shown it might be able to escape some of the antibodies produced by the vaccine.

“I’m worried,” said Alex Sigal, a virologist at the Africa Health Research Institute.

Sigal, Moore, and other scientists who are studying the E484K mutation still have to complete their work in the lab to see if the vaccine is less effective against this new variant.

Based on what they’ve seen so far, they say they highly doubt E484K will render the coronavirus vaccines useless. Rather, they think there’s a possibility the mutation — on its own or in combination with other mutations — could decrease the efficacy of the vaccine against the variant.

They also worry E484K might be an indication the novel coronavirus is showing its ability to change before our eyes. If this mutation happened in a matter of months, other problematic mutations could follow.

“This virus may be taking the first steps down a fairly lengthy road towards vaccine resistance,” said Andrew Ward, a structural virologist at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California.
“It’s the beginning of a long haul,” Moore said. “That’s what’s really shaken me up about this. It’s a sobering wake up call.”

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