The nucleotide sequences of the AstraZeneca and Pfizer/BioNTech, vaccines used in the UK have been released in response to a Freedom of Information request made via WhatDoTheyKnow.com
As the sequences have been released via WhatDoTheyKnow they can now be accessed by anyone.
The release, on 26th of October 2021, by the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency follows an initial refusal under Section 41 (Information provided in confidence) and Section 43 (Commercial interests) of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, which was overturned as a result of an internal review prompted by the requester.
The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency published “Information for healthcare professionals and the public” when they approved each COVID-19 vaccine:
- Regulatory approval of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19 – 2 December 2020
- Regulatory approval of Vaxzevria (previously COVID-19 Vaccine AstraZeneca) – 30 December 2020
- Regulatory approval of Spikevax (formerly COVID-19 Vaccine Moderna) – 8 January 2021
- Regulatory approval of COVID-19 Vaccine Janssen – 28 May 2021
However, the information proactively released at the time the vaccines were approved did not contain their nucleotide sequences, and prior to this FOI response they had not been officially released by the agency.
While the vaccines had been described, details of the information they encoded had not been publicly released. Imagine the vaccine as data on a USB drive. Prior to this response, what the regulators proactively released when approving the vaccines was akin to information on the materials used to make, and package, the drive: plastic, and metal, along with a vague description of its contents, rather than a copy of the actual data contained on the drive.
It could be argued that people were not able to make a fully informed decision on whether or not to have the vaccine given that their sequences were not initially available. This was the case made by the requester when they asked for the initial refusal to be reconsidered. Of course one wouldn’t expect many individuals to review sequence data personally, but as the data wasn’t generally available to those outside of the manufactures and regulators, independent analysis and commentary was chilled.
The lack of transparency surrounding the detailed composition of the vaccines was not limited to the UK. The fact the sequences were not available prompted one group of scientists to seek to determine the sequences of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines themselves, analysing small portions of vaccine doses that remained in vials after immunisation. They carried out this work, with the permission of regulators in the USA, and published their results on GitHub.
In its FOI response the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency stated that it had “obtained consent from the relevant companies to release the full nucleotide base sequences”. Not all the requested information has yet been released. The response states the Janssen Covid-19 nucleotide sequence has been released, however it is not contained in the attached documents (a protein sequence, rather than a nucleotide sequence has been provided). The response also says: “discussions are continuing with regard to the release of the sequence of the COVID-19 Vaccine Moderna.” This suggests two more sequences should hopefully be forthcoming on the correspondence thread soon.
We are hopeful the released material, which in some cases goes beyond the sequences and includes further information about the vaccines, is of value. As always we encourage those who make use of the released data to cite the WhatDoTheyKnow thread, and to link to their work via annotations.
Image: Spencer Davis