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European regulator 'pretty confident' mRNA COVID vaccines work against Indian variant

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Doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine are seen being prepared on May 12, 2021, in Decatur, US.
Doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine are seen being prepared on May 12, 2021, in Decatur, US.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Ron Harris
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COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna appear to be effective against the new Indian strain, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) said on Wednesday.

Data reviewed by the European regulator on the efficacy of mRNA vaccines Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna against variant discovered in India are "encouraging", EMA vaccine strategy manager Marco Cavaleri said at a press conference.

Messenger RNA, or mRNA, is an active ingredient that contains instructions for human cells to construct a harmless piece of the coronavirus called the spike protein, which the immune system then recognises as foreign, allowing it to mount a response against the virus on being infected.

Cavaleri was also optimistic that the adenovirus-based vaccines by AstraZeneca/Oxford and Johnson & Johnson would protect against the variant.

But he added that the EMA was awaiting additional data from India, where a version of the AstraZeneca vaccine is being administered. "So far, overall, we are pretty confident that the vaccines will be effective against this variant," he said.

These four vaccines have been approved by the watchdog for use across the European Union. According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), nearly two thirds of the 209.2 million doses shipped to EU/EEA countries are Pfizer/BioNTech, while Moderna has delivered more than 18.6 million doses to European countries.

The B.1.617 variant, which first emerged in India in October, has now been detected in 44 countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) this week classified it as being "of concern."

It joined a list of three other coronavirus variants, those that first appeared in the United Kingdom, Brazil and South Africa, that are considered more dangerous than the original strain because they are either more contagious, deadly or resistant to certain vaccines.

B.1.617 is partly blamed for a devastating surge of infections and death in India, where the official death toll from COVID-19 passed 250,000 on Wednesday after the country recorded a new daily record of 4,205 deaths.

The EU Commission called on Wednesday for the bloc's 27 member states to "apply an 'emergency brake'" by temporarily banning all non-essential travel to and from India over concerns about the spread of the variant.

"It is important to limit to the strict minimum the categories of travellers that can travel from India for essential reasons and to subject those who may still travel from India to strict testing and quarantine arrangements," it said in a statement.

Several European countries including Germany, France and Belgium have already severely restricted access to travellers from India.