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Chapter 1: The evolving virus

In the first chapter of “The Science Behind the Coronavirus, Series III: Mutations,” Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, the executive chairman of the Los Angeles Times, explains how mutations alter the shape and infectivity of the coronavirus. With the shape and structure of the virus rapidly changing, there is new worry about the possibility that antibody therapies and even vaccines designed against the first wave of SARS-CoV-2 may not be as effective as hoped after the inevitable evolution of the virus to resist antibodies.

Research on this question is only just beginning. A study by Pfizer scientists working with the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston shows the Pfizer vaccine remains effective against a mutation common to the South African and British coronavirus variants. But the researchers say that more studies are underway to measure combinations of mutations against the vaccine.

In the meantime, Dr. Soon-Shiong says, a different approach — to activate the body’s memory T cells against the virus — could remain unaffected by the mutations against the spike protein on the surface of the virus. That strategy drives the vaccine candidate that Dr. Soon-Shiong’s company, ImmunityBio, is currently testing.

Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong is a surgeon and scientist who has spent his career studying the human immune system to fight cancer and infectious disease. In mid-October, Soon-Shiong’s company, ImmunityBio, received permission from the Food and Drug Administration to begin Phase 1 trials of its COVID-19 vaccine candidate. He has also received approval to begin trials in South Africa, where he will explore the potential of his T cell vaccine to prevent infection from these mutated virus strains.