Moderna’s vaccine is effective against new variants of the coronavirus that have emerged in the UK and South Africa, the company said on Monday. However, it appears to be less protective against the variant discovered in South Africa, so the company is developing a new form of the vaccine that could be used as a booster shot against this virus.
“We’re doing it today to be ahead of the curve if we have to,” said Dr. Tal Zaks, Chief Medical Officer of Moderna, in an interview. “I consider it an insurance policy.”
He added, “I don’t know if we need it and I hope we don’t.”
Moderna reported results from a study using blood samples from eight people who had received two doses of the vaccine and two monkeys who had also been immunized.
The British variant did not affect the amount of neutralizing antibodies – the type that can deactivate the virus – produced after vaccination. But with the South African form there was a six-fold decrease in those levels.
Even so, the company said, these antibodies remain “above levels expected to be protective”.
Moderna collaborated on the study with the Vaccine Research Center of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.
The results have not yet been published or peer-reviewed but have been submitted to bioRxiv, which publishes preliminary studies online.
The company’s action is part of a race to fight a changing virus that has already wreaked havoc around the world and is now threatening to mutate in ways that make the fight even more difficult.
Several new variants of the virus have emerged, with mutations that are worrying scientists. A form first discovered in the UK is about twice as contagious as the virus identified in China a year ago, and researchers have begun to suspect it could be more deadly too.
Answers to your vaccine questions
If I live in the US, when can I get the vaccine?
While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary from state to state, most doctors and residents of long-term care facilities will come first. If you want to understand how this decision is made, this article will help.
When can I get back to normal life after the vaccination?
Life will only get back to normal once society as a whole receives adequate protection against the coronavirus. Once countries have approved a vaccine, they can only vaccinate a few percent of their citizens in the first few months. The unvaccinated majority remain susceptible to infection. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines show robust protection against disease. However, it is also possible that people spread the virus without knowing they are infected because they have mild or no symptoms. Scientists don’t yet know whether the vaccines will also block the transmission of the coronavirus. Even vaccinated people have to wear masks for the time being, avoid the crowds indoors and so on. Once enough people are vaccinated, it becomes very difficult for the coronavirus to find people at risk to become infected. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve this goal, life could approach a normal state in autumn 2021.
Do I still have to wear a mask after the vaccination?
Yeah, but not forever. The two vaccines that may be approved this month clearly protect people from contracting Covid-19. However, the clinical trials that produced these results were not designed to determine whether vaccinated people could still spread the coronavirus without developing symptoms. That remains a possibility. We know that people who are naturally infected with the coronavirus can spread it without experiencing a cough or other symptoms. Researchers will study this question intensively when the vaccines are introduced. In the meantime, self-vaccinated people need to think of themselves as potential spreaders.
Will it hurt What are the side effects?
The vaccine against Pfizer and BioNTech, like other typical vaccines, is delivered as a shot in the arm. The injection is no different from the ones you received before. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported serious health problems. However, some of them have experienced short-lived symptoms, including pain and flu-like symptoms that usually last a day. It is possible that people will have to plan to take a day off or go to school after the second shot. While these experiences are not pleasant, they are a good sign: they are the result of your own immune system’s encounter with the vaccine and a strong response that ensures lasting immunity.
Will mRNA vaccines change my genes?
No. Moderna and Pfizer vaccines use a genetic molecule to boost the immune system. This molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse with a cell, allowing the molecule to slide inside. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus that can stimulate the immune system. At any given point in time, each of our cells can contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules that they produce to make their own proteins. As soon as these proteins are made, our cells use special enzymes to break down the mRNA. The mRNA molecules that our cells make can only survive a few minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a little longer, so the cells can make extra viral proteins and trigger a stronger immune response. However, the mRNA can last a few days at most before it is destroyed.
Other variants with different mutations have emerged in South Africa and Brazil, and preliminary laboratory studies suggested that these forms may have some level of resistance to the immunity that people develop after recovering from infection or with Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccinated were vaccinated.
The British variant has been found in at least 20 states, but the Brazilian and South African versions were not discovered in the United States.
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Dr. Zaks said the new version of the Moderna vaccine, which targets the South African variant, could be used as a booster if needed a year after receiving the original vaccine.
The need for such a booster can be determined by doing blood tests to measure antibody levels or by observing the population of vaccinated people to see if they will develop the new variant.
“We don’t have any data on the Brazilian variant yet,” said Dr. Zaks. “We expect it to come close to the South African, if at all. This is the one with the greatest overlap. New tribes will continue to emerge and we will continue to evaluate them. “
Noting that it took Moderna 42 days to make the original vaccine, he said the company could make a new vaccine, “hopefully a little faster this time, but not by much”.
Talks with regulators about what would be required to make a new version of the vaccine available to the public were just beginning.
“It’s early,” said Dr. Zaks.
This evolving story will be updated.