Moderna tests revamped COVID-19 vaccine to target South Africa strain

Drugmaker Moderna said Monday its vaccine protects against emerging strains of the coronavirus but is less effective against the South African mutation than the U.K. variant, so it is exploring a revamped booster shot.

The Massachusetts company tested its vaccine against the new strains using blood samples from eight trial participants and lab monkeys that had received doses.

It produced a protective response, but scientists saw a six-fold reduction in neutralizing power against the South African strain, so the company is testing a version that can attack it better.

“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,” Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said. “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 [the level of antibodies] against this and potentially future variants.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, who leads infectious-disease research at the National Institutes of Health, says the vaccines produce a positive “cushion” against the new strains, which spread quickly, though it’s important to be proactive.

“I don’t want people to think that the vaccines are not effective against them — they are,” Dr. Fauci told NBC’s “Today Show.” “However, we really need to make sure that we begin, and we already have, to prepare, if it’s necessary, to upgrade the vaccines.”

Reported coronavirus cases have dropped by a third in the past two weeks, but scientists fear it is a lull before fast-moving strains swamp the country.

Reflecting that fear, President Biden is expected to ban non-citizens who try to enter the country from South Africa as of Jan. 30 and extend the travel restrictions on Brazil and parts of Europe that former President Trump had moved to cancel as of Jan. 26.

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