Updated version of COVID-19 vaccine produces eight times higher levels of antibodies against Variable OmicronAccording to the results of early trials, the hope is to get a booster dose once a year to protect against disease.
The vaccine is the first “bivalent” formulation to combine protection against Omicron and the original strain of the coronavirus, and is the company’s lead candidate for upcoming fall booster programs.
Dr. Paul Burton, Moderna’s chief medical officer, said the new vaccine raised antibody levels to the point that a single booster dose a year could suffice, unless a fundamentally different variant required the vaccine to be redesigned again.
“The data we’re showing today is really important because we get a strong antibody response against Omicron,” he said. “For the first time, we can really consider the possibility of boosting only once a year, because we can move people to such a high level that it takes longer to degrade.”
The new vaccine, called mRNA1273.214, combines 25 micrograms of the original Moderna Covid vaccine with 25 micrograms of a vaccine that specifically targets the Omicron variant. In the phase 2/3 trial, a dose of 50 mcg was administered to 437 people who had already received two primary vaccines and a booster from the original Moderna vaccine earlier in the epidemic.
The company hasn’t released full data from the trial, but according to a press release, in people who received a dose of the new vaccine — the fourth in total — levels of antibodies against Omicron rose eightfold in the first four weeks.
About a quarter of those who took part in the trial had previously had Covid, and in these, antibody levels rose even more. Burton said antibody levels above 400 appeared to be sufficient to prevent infection, and in the trial, levels rose to 6000 in those who had not previously had Covid, and 9,500 in those who tested positive previously. “Both had a very good, vigorous, strong increase in antibody levels,” Burton said.
The first variant of Omicron, called BA.1, emerged late last year and fueled severe waves of Covid around the world. Although it was less severe than some previous variants, its higher transmissibility means it can still increase hospital admissions and deaths and put severe stress on health systems.
Since the first wave of Omicron swept the UK in December and January, more transmissible sub-variables have emerged. After a wave of the so-called BA.2 Omicron in the spring, two variants, known as BA.4 and BA.5, began to gain more ground.
Moderna’s bivalent vaccine targets the BA.1 variant, but Burton said that even if there has been some reduction in protection against the newer Omicron variants, it should still provide good long-term protection. “I am sure it will hold up against the family for now,” he said.
Moderna plans to apply for approval from medical regulators in the coming weeks, including the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, with the aim of making the vaccine available for the fall booster programme.
“We have started producing it and will certainly plan to have it ready for the UK, Europe, the US and countries around the world, in very large quantities,” Burton said.
If the booster provides a year’s protection against Covid, it could pave the way for the disease to be treated in a similar way to the flu, where strains are continually tracked to determine which ones should enter the seasonal snapshot for next year.
“To be able to move forward, we need to get to a world like we do with influenza, where we see the new strain, we get it into the new vaccine, and we can do that very quickly, and we can adapt much faster,” Burton said.