Moderna to test coronavirus vaccine to fight South Africa variant

  • Moderna said its current coronavirus shot can probably protect people against variants of the disease first found in South Africa and the UK.
  • But the shot showed lower levels of antibodies in lab testing against the South African variant. 
  • Moderna is now developing a new version of its vaccine tailored to that viral strain.
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Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine is likely still protective against a viral strain first found in South Africa, but the Massachusetts biotech said Monday it plans to soon start testing a booster shot tailored to protect people against that variant. 

Moderna’s two-dose COVID-19 vaccine won US authorization in December and has since been rolled out to millions of people. A large-scale study last year found the shot was overwhelmingly protective against COVID-19, being about 94% effective at preventing symptomatic disease

Read more: More than 200 coronavirus vaccines are still in development as the initial vaccine rollout ramps up. Here’s how experts anticipate 2021 playing out.

But infectious-disease experts have grown increasingly concerned with the recent rise of several variants, in particular a strain first identified in South Africa. That version of the virus has 10 mutations in the spike protein, which is the target of the leading COVID-19 vaccines, including Moderna’s. 

New lab research from Moderna and its partner scientists at the US National Institutes of Health found the shot generated less of an immune response against the South African strain. That research hasn’t been published yet in a medical journal, but Moderna said it believes the shot is still protective, at least in the short-term. 

Moderna’s shot showed a six-fold reduction in neutralizing antibodies — the viral-killing proteins that play a critical role in the immune system — against the South African variant compared to other variants, the company said.

“These lower titers may suggest a potential risk of earlier waning of immunity to the new B.1.351 strains,” Moderna stated in a Monday press release, referring to the South African strain by its scientific name.

Read more: Inside Moderna’s historic coronavirus vaccine program that transformed the biotech upstart into a $55 billion drug industry powerhouse

Given the results, Moderna will soon start additional clinical trials. This research will test giving another booster shot of its current vaccine, as well as a booster shot tailor-made to neutralize the South African variant. 

Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said the biotech was starting the new program “out of an abundance of caution.”

It’s unclear when the human research would start, as Moderna said the variant-specific vaccine still needs to go through some preclinical testing.

Read more: Moderna’s ambitions of pumping out up to 1 billion doses of a coronavirus vaccine rest on a former Polaroid factory that’s never produced an approved drug

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