Moderna says it's making variant-specific COVID-19 vaccines, but its existing vaccine should still work

Darrell Etherington
·2-min read
A doctor prepares a Moderna vaccine Covid-19 for an inhabitant of the "Home for the Elderly Kamenec" in Ostrava, Czech Republic, on January 14, 2021. - Vaccination with the Moderna vaccine started in the Czech Republic on January 14, 2021. (Photo by Radek Mica / AFP) (Photo by RADEK MICA/AFP via Getty Images)

Moderna has detailed some of the steps it's taking to ensure that its vaccine remains effective in the face of emerging strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that leads to COVID-19. These include testing how adding a second booster, for a total of three shots, works with its existing COVID-19 vaccine, and also developing a strain-specific variant designed to target spike proteins on the new variants of the virus that were first identified in the U.K. and in South Africa.

The company is pursuing these measures "out of an abundance of caution," the biotech firm said in a press release, since early studies show that the existing vaccine continues to prove effective against these new strains, albeit with some loss of efficacy specifically with the B.1.351 variant, which was first identified in patients in South Africa. Even so, it's heartening to see the company moving quickly to address the virus' mutation, since it's likely that similar adaptations will be required longer term to keep COVID-19 in control even once the current pandemic is ended.

Further, Moderna says that in fact, it expects both its forthcoming candidate and its existing booster vaccine should be able to provide additional immunity-boosting capabilities when used in combination with "all of the leading vaccine candidates" on the market. That means the company believes it could be used in combination with the Oxford or Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines to boost immunity, which could be helpful in cases where supplies of one or the other are low and there's an urgent need to provide a booster in a timely manner.

The best news of all of this is, of course, that Moderna now has evidence that suggests the mRNA-based vaccine it's already providing to people globally will still provide protection against SARS-CoV-2, and by extension, COVID-19. Specifically for the U.K. variant in particular, the study data shows no reduction in immune performance in patients who received the vaccine. As for the South African variant, that reduction in efficacy mostly translates to a potential of quicker waning of immunity provided by the jab -- which hopefully just means people will need another jab sooner than expected, but shouldn't lead to any dramatic changes in our combined global approach to providing inoculations, especially initially.