Moderna Developing Shot for COVID-19 Vaccine to Fight South African Variant

Its vaccine should prove effective against the South African variant, but a booster shot will help.
Brad Bergan

While Moderna has already developed a COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine — which will likely still prove effective against the new variant of the virus discovered in South Africa — the Massachusetts-based biotech company said it will also test a booster shot designed to protect recipients from the new mutation, according to a recent press release from the company.


Moderna developing booster shot for COVID-19 vaccine

Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine — which requires two doses — achieved authorization for use in the U.S. last December, and has already seen distribution to millions of people. A massive study in 2020 discovered the shot was highly protective against COVID-``19, with a roughly 94% effectiveness rate at curbing the spread of the global disease.

UPDATE Jan. 25, 10:00 AM EST: Moderna remains confident of initial shot for short-term COVID-19 protection

However, experts in infectious diseases have become increasingly wary of the continued rise of several variants of the COVID-19 virus — specifically a strain initially discovered in South Africa. This variant contains 10 mutations in the spike protein — a signature feature of the virus and target of the leading vaccines like Moderna's.

Recent lab research from Moderna and partnered scientists at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggests the shot created a lesser immune response to the South African variant than earlier ones. While this research has yet to see publication in a medical journal, Moderna is confident the shot will still work in the short-term.

UPDATE Jan. 25, 10:15 AM EST: Anthony Fauci emphasizes need for readiness to update COVID-19 vaccines

The top infectious-disease expert in the U.S. Anthony Fauci said the current coronavirus vaccines are viewed as effective counteragents against these new COVID-19 strains, according to a Monday morning interview with NBC News TODAY.

"However, we really need to make sure that we begin, and we already have, to prepare, if it's necessary, to upgrade the vaccines," said Fauci, reports Business Insider.

UPDATE Jan. 25, 10:20 AM EST: Initial Moderna vaccine possibly one-sixth as effective against South African variant

Moderna's COVID-19 shot saw a six-fold reduction in neutralizing antibodies — which are proteins essential to the body's immune system — when fighting the South African variant, compared to earlier variants, said the biotech company.

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"These lower titers may suggest a potential risk of earlier waning of immunity to the new B.1.351 strains," said Moderna in the press release, with reference to the South African mutation of the COVID-19 virus.

UPDATE Jan. 25, 10:26 AM EST: New 'Booster' Moderna vaccine still in preclinical phase

Consequently, Moderna will begin new clinical trials to derive a more effective booster shot. This ongoing research will develop a booster shot for the vaccine designed to fight against the earlier strains of the vaccine, in addition to a new "bespoke" one designed to eliminate the South African variant.

The new booster shot program is moving forward "out of an abundance of caution," said CEO Moderna Stéphane Bancel.

However, it remains to be seen when the research will begin human tests, since Moderna said the variant-killing vaccine is still moving forward through preclinical tests.

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