The pharmaceutical company Moderna is considering an addition to its COVID-19 vaccine regime that would add a booster shot to combat a variant of the virus that seems to render the company’s vaccine less potent.
On Monday, the company released research results that showed its vaccine fared well against two variants of the novel coronavirus, but was less potent against a third variant that was first identified in South Africa.
While the vaccine was able to fight the South Africa variant – called B.1.351 –researchers found that there was a sixfold reduction in the drug’s effectiveness against that variant, according to research published in bioRxiv, a preprint server that posts scientific research that has not yet been peer-reviewed.
The company said that the antibodies the vaccine created to fight the virus “remain above levels that are expected to be protective” with the South Africa variant.
Even though, the company plans to continue research into a possible booster dose that would be in addition to the two doses of the vaccine that is required now, according to the company.
“As we seek to defeat the COVID-19 virus, which has created a worldwide pandemic, we believe it is imperative to be proactive as the virus evolves. We are encouraged by these new data, which reinforce our confidence that the Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine should be protective against these newly detected variants,” said Stéphane Bancel, Chief Executive Officer of Moderna.
“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 against this and potentially future variants.”
The manufacturer of the other vaccine being used in the United States, biotechnology companies Pfizer and BioNTech SE, said research shows its vaccine is effective against the United Kingdom variant, but they have not yet released data that shows how the vaccine works against the South Africa variant.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the new strains of the virus appear to be more contagious, and there are signs that the U.K. variant could be more deadly than earlier forms of the virus.
Health officials in the United States are warning that the U.K. variant could become the dominant version of the COVID-19 virus by March.
There are several variants of the virus including one first identified in Brazil that researchers say is likely more contagious.
The Brazil variant has some scientists raising the possibility “that this variant can evade antibodies, which would impact the current vaccines’ effectiveness,” The Washington Post reported.
Moderna said its vaccine is expected to remain protective for at least a year after the recommended two-dose regime is completed.
“It is a little worrisome that you see a lesser neutralizing antibody response, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you are unprotected,” Dr. Paul Offit, an infectious disease expert at the University of Pennsylvania told Reuters.
Offit noted that even these lower levels may still be enough to protect against serious infections.
“The goal of this vaccine is to keep you out of the hospital and to keep you out of the morgue. If you get a symptomatic infection or mildly symptomatic infection that is not a burden to the healthcare system,” Offit said.