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Moderna says its COVID-19 vaccine is effective against UK, South Africa variants

Biotech firm says it is nonetheless testing whether adding a second booster, to make 3 shots in total, could increase protection from new strains

Illustrative: Courtney Senechal unpacks a special refrigerated box of Moderna COVID-19 vaccines as she prepared to ready more supply for use at the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center in Boston, Massachusetts, December 24, 2020. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP)
Illustrative: Courtney Senechal unpacks a special refrigerated box of Moderna COVID-19 vaccines as she prepared to ready more supply for use at the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center in Boston, Massachusetts, December 24, 2020. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP)

US biotechnology firm Moderna on Monday said lab studies showed its COVID-19 vaccine would remain protective against variants of the coronavirus first identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa.

But out of caution, the company will test adding a second booster of its vaccine — to make three shots in total — and has begun preclinical studies on a booster specifically for the South African variant.

“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 Stephane Bancel, Moderna’s CEO.

“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 study the impact of the existing vaccine, called mRNA-1273, Moderna took blood samples from eight people who had received two doses of the vaccine, and two primates that had also been immunized.

Volunteers are given the Moderna mRNA-1273 Coronavirus Efficacy (COVE), in Detroit, Michigan, on August 5, 2020. (AFP, courtesy of the Henry Ford Health System)

For the B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in the UK, there was no impact on the level of neutralizing antibodies — which bind to the virus and prevent it from invading human cells — that were produced by the shots.

But for the South African variant, B.1.351, there was a sixfold reduction in the neutralizing antibody level.

Even so, it remained above the quantity that was shown to be protective in earlier tests on primates that were infected on purpose.

The company, which carried out the studies with the National Institutes of Health, has submitted the study to a preprint server so it can be analyzed by the wider scientific community.

Moderna began supplying its vaccines to Israel earlier this month in a boost to the country’s national vaccination drive. The firm says Israel has ordered 6 million doses of the vaccine, enough to inoculate 3 million people.

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