Scientists are raising serious doubt over the risk assessment of Statens Serum Institute (SSI) that mink-related mutation of the coronavirus could pose a threat to a future vaccine.
While the Danish government decided to cull the entire mink population, including healthy herds based on the risk assessment, researchers ponder if there is enough scientific evidence to back its conclusions. The Danish Medicines Agency announced it was not consulted before the government took its decision adding that it is "unlikely" that the mutation will have a "significant impact on the effect of the first generation of vaccines."
SSI claims that the mutation found the so-called cluster-5 could, in theory, weaken efforts for a new vaccine due to a change in the spike (S) protein, which is a key target for vaccines.
"There is nothing in the report that gives reason to conclude that this particular mutation may constitute a danger to a vaccine. Therefore, one cannot conclude too strongly on the significance of the cluster-5 mutation for a vaccine," said Professor Jens Lundgren, emphasising that these are only preliminary results.
The Danish institute only released more details about the research late in the process, which made the international scientific community call for it to be reviewed. Some are openly questioning the validity of the claim that mink-related mutation is a hazard for the vaccine.
According to Dr Anthony Fauci, United States' top infectious disease official, the issue should be taken seriously but "it doesn't look like something that's going to be a really big problem for the vaccines that are currently being used to induce an immune response".
"When you look at the binding sites on the spike protein … it does not appear at this point that the mutation that has been identified in the minks is going to have an impact on vaccines and the effect of a vaccine-induced immune response," he said in a discussion broadcast by the Chatham House think-tank.
In order to be a threat to the future vaccine, the new strain of the virus associated with mink farms needs to be more contagious than the current coronavirus. The Statens Serum Institute announced this is not the case.
Moreover, once developed vaccines could relatively easy be modified, say scientists, to protect against several strains of the virus.
"The vaccines that are under development do not only attack the small part that is mutated in mink variants. The good vaccines will make our immune system respond to many different parts of the virus, said the immunologist Mike Barnbob.
The World Health Organisation also states that mutations in viruses are normal, and jumping to conclusions without further research is risky.
Asked to comment on the decision of the Danish government, WHO spokesperson Dr Margaret Harris clarified that they don't think the culling was a necessary measure. She also reminded that the primary source of contamination remains human-to-human transition, and mutations need to be monitored.
The European Disease and Control centre advised to increased testing amongst fur farmers, workers and animals. Both WHO and ECDC underlined that all findings are preliminary and further investigations are needed to assess the situation.
The European Commission has reached out to vaccine manufacturers to evaluate the risk as some producers already confirmed that they would be able to cover Cluster-5 mutation with the vaccines.