A worrisome new strain of COVID-19, which some scientists have dubbed the “Eek” variant, is spreading rapidly in Japan. Eek refers to the E484K mutation, which is raising concerns due to the discovery that current COVID-19 vaccines are “slightly less effective” at combating it.
At the Tokyo Medical and Dental University Medical Hospital, approximately 70% of coronavirus patients, or 10 of 14, tested positive for the mutation in March 2021 alone.
Between January and February, 12 of 36 patients tested positive for the mutation. None of the patients had recently traveled abroad or reported contact with others infected with the Eek COVID variant.
The Eek mutation works by slightly altering the surface “spike” protein of the virus, making it more difficult for our antibodies to identify and fight off. This particular mutation evolved independently in numerous variants worldwide, suggesting the virus is self-sufficient, which gives it a decisive survival advantage.
Most vaccines are effective against the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the U.K., but the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been less effective against the B.1.351 variant, which contains the Eek mutation, in laboratory studies. Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, and Novavax’s vaccines were even less viable against B.1.351.
“I think for the next year or two, E484K will be the most concerning” mutation, evolutionary biologist Jesse Bloom from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle told the New York Times in early April.
Will we need new vaccines to fight the Eek COVID variant?
But it’s not all bad news. The same survival methods the Eek COVID variant uses to help foil antibodies also make it easier for scientists to find and block those defenses. In South Africa, researchers recently discovered a new B.1.351 vaccine that is expected to be effective against other COVID variants.
Pfizer and Moderna are likewise testing booster shots against B.1.351 that should work against similar variants. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, believes it may be similarly effective to receive a third vaccine dose in six months to a year.
“That would keep antibody levels high in each recipient, overwhelming any variant—a more practical strategy than making a specialized vaccine for each new variant that emerges,” Fauci told the New York Times. “My only concern about chasing all the variants is that you’d almost be playing Whac-A-Mole because they’ll keep coming up and keep coming up.”