But the shot produces fewer protective antibodies against the mutation found in South Africa, and the company is working on new versions.
Moderna’s vaccine is effective against new variants of the coronavirus that have emerged in Britain and South Africa, the company announced on Monday. But it appears to be less protective against the variant discovered in South Africa, and so the company is developing a new form of the vaccine that could be used as a booster shot.
“We’re doing it today to be ahead of the curve should we need to,” Dr. Tal Zaks, Moderna’s chief medical officer, said in an interview. “I think of it as an insurance policy.”
He added, “I don’t know if we need it, and I hope we don’t.”
Moderna reported findings from a study that used blood samples from eight people who had received two doses of the vaccine, and two monkeys that had also been immunized.
The variant found in Britain had no effect on the levels of neutralizing antibodies — the type that can disable the virus — produced after vaccination. But with the form from South Africa, there was a sixfold reduction in those levels.
Even so, the company said, those antibodies “remain above levels that are expected to be protective.”
Moderna collaborated on the study with the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health.
The results have not yet been published or peer-reviewed, but have been submitted to bioRxiv, which posts preliminary studies online.
The company’s action is part of a race to control a shape-shifting virus that has already created global havoc and now threatens to mutate in ways that will make it even harder to fight.
In other vaccine news:
Merck announced on Monday that it was abandoning a pair of Covid-19 vaccines in clinical trials. The news came as a disappointment at a time when the United States and other countries are struggling to accelerate their sluggish vaccination campaigns and new coronavirus variants threaten to bring surges over the next few months. The two projects are the second and third vaccines to be abandoned in clinical trials. The University of Queensland in Australia abandoned their own effort in December. Sanofi and other vaccine makers have paused some projects after getting disappointing initial results but are now regrouping to move forward. Merck was slower than other companies to get into the Covid-19 vaccine race. In its announcement, the company said that both vaccines looked safe in early clinical trials. But neither produced a strong response from the immune system. Merck will instead focus its Covid-19 efforts on an experimental antiviral drug, known as molnupiravir. Originally designed for influenza, it has shown promising effects in studies on animals and in early clinical trials. The trial is set to finish by May, although preliminary results could come out as early as March.
Australia on Monday approved the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for use among people 16 and older, the country’s first vaccine approval. Vaccinations are expected to start late next month. The announcement came one year to the day after Australia reported its first coronavirus case.
After delays, Turkey received 6.5 million more doses of a Chinese-produced coronavirus vaccine Monday morning, the state-run news agency, Anadolu, reported. Turkey was expecting to receive at least 10 million doses of the vaccine in December, and 20 million more in January. But the batches were delayed and the number of doses remained below expectations, an apparent blow to China’s vaccine diplomacy. Turkey has given more than 1. 2 million inoculations, according to Health Ministry data available online, using the CoronaVac shot from the Chinese company Sinovac. Almost 2.5 million people in Turkey are infected with the coronavirus and more than 25,000 people have died, government data shows.