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With worrisome coronavirus variants seemingly emerging and spreading everywhere, lead vaccine makers are wasting no time in trying to get ahead of the growing threat.
This week, Moderna and partners Pfizer and BioNTech announced they have kicked off new vaccine clinical trials aimed at boosting the effectiveness of their authorized vaccines against new, concerning SARS-CoV-2 variants—primarily B.1.351, a variant first identified in South Africa.
In a set of studies published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine, both the Moderna mRNA vaccine and Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccine spurred antibodies in vaccinated people that could neutralize the B.1.351 variant. But the levels of those neutralizing antibodies were significantly lower than what was seen against past versions of the virus. (Both vaccines performed well against the B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in the UK, which is expected to become the dominant strain in the US next month.)
Though the vaccine makers still expect the current vaccines will protect against B.1.351 and other variants—at least averting severe disease and deaths—they’re preparing for the worst. The good news is that the mRNA vaccine design is relatively easy to tweak against the variants.
The variants carry dangerous mutations in critical areas of their spike protein, which appear to render the viruses more transmissible and virulent than the original SARS-CoV-2. Adjusting the current vaccines to target the variants involves simply editing the code of the spike mRNA molecule used in both of the vaccines so that it matches the variants’ mutations. Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech have each said that such adjustments could take mere weeks to pull off.
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