“Out of an abundance of caution and leveraging the flexibility of our mRNA platform, we are advancing an emerging variant booster candidate against the variant first identified in the Republic of South Africa into the clinic to determine if it will be more effective to boost titers [antibody levels] against this and potentially future variants,” Moderna’s Chief Executive Officer Stéphane Bancel said in a statement.
The company says that the development of the new vaccine was important in the fight against the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, which causes the disease COVID-19, especially “as the virus evolves.”
First detected in South Africa, the B.1.351 variant, along with another variant first identified in the United Kingdom, spreads faster and is more contagious, but there’s still no concrete evidence suggesting that the new variants are deadlier.
However, scientists believe the South African variant’s mutations may “reduce, but not obliterate the recognition of the virus by antibodies,” which may then reduce vaccine efficacy, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Although Moderna has developed the new vaccine booster, the vaccine maker says that its current vaccine still offers protection against several emerging variants, including the South African and United Kingdom strains, according to internal data from a small laboratory study (pdf) between Moderna and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
The study, which hasn’t been peer-reviewed, found that the efficacy of the vaccine had the same effect against the United Kingdom variant as the original CCP virus strain, while there was a “six-fold reduction” in antibody levels observed with the South African variant. But the reduction in neutralizing antibodies was still enough to provide protection.
The company will also be testing whether an additional booster dose beyond the existing two-dose series of its current vaccine will create more neutralizing antibodies against different CCP virus variants.
Mutations occur often with viruses, including with the CCP virus, which already has “about 4,000 mutations in its spike protein alone,” according to the WHO.
Mutations are only a concern when they cause the virus to be more infectious or deadly and are able to avoid the immune system, therapeutics, and vaccines.
Last week, California officials notified vaccine providers to halt administering one of Moderna’s vaccine batches due to possible allergic reactions.
But two days later on Jan. 20, the California Department of Public Health announced that providers may resume the administration of the vaccine, saying they “found no scientific basis to continue the pause” after examination of the “evidence collected” and discussions with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and Moderna.
In addition, about 149 people have died after getting a CCP virus vaccine in the United States, according to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System.