There was a significant piece of good news today when Moderna announced that its studies have shown that the immunity produced by their vaccine would protect against both the United Kingdom and South African variants of the coronavirus.
Both these variants have changes in the spike protein targeted by the vaccines. While some variations are shared, the South African variant has many more variations than the variant first identified in the United Kingdom.
While protection against the United Kingdom variant appeared to be equal to that achieved against the most common forms of coronavirus, there was some decrease in protection with the South African variant even though it did appear the vaccine was effective.
Probably the biggest news from Moderna was that they are going to begin to develop booster immunizations specifically for variant COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) viruses. The booster can be used with any vaccine.
They can do this easily because, unlike other vaccines, they can simply change the sequence of the RNA and swap it out or add it to the current vaccine. This will allow them to change the vaccine in response to changes in the virus within weeks rather than years without further testing.
Moderna is planning to make booster shots that could be given after other vaccines to ensure that they would protect against new variants. This would ensure that immunity from the vaccines would continue to evolve and provide protection no matter what happens with the virus.
Since the new strains emerged, vaccine makers have been saying they think their vaccines will still provide protection. Moderna’s announcement supports research by outside scientists indicating the protection against the strain identified in South Africa in particular may not be as strong though still effective.
There is general agreement among virologists that the U.K. and South African variants may have increased transmission. But last week British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a televised news conference that it could also be more deadly. The data behind this statement is weak. In fact, Britain’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, cautioned that the data about the death rates associated with the variant were still highly uncertain.
Regardless of their activity, however, it is reassuring to know the vaccines will protect against these variants.