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Moderna says its new COVID vaccine is effective against omicron

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now to the ongoing fight against the coronavirus. Today, the drug company Moderna announced what could be an important advance in the nation's quest to live with COVID-19. Moderna says a new version of their vaccine appears to provide strong and potentially long-lasting protection against the omicron variant.

NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is here. Hey, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Well, this would be great since the existing vaccines have been less than perfect against omicron. How would this new vaccine work?

STEIN: The company took its original vaccine and added another strand of genetic code programmed to target the omicron variant to create what's known as a bivalent vaccine, meaning it protects against two strains of the virus at the same time - in this case, the original strain and the highly contagious omicron variant. And the company says that a study involving hundreds of people who had already received three shots of the original vaccine showed that getting another shot with the new vaccine significantly boosts antibodies that can neutralize omicron. Here's Dr. Paul Burton, Moderna's chief medical officer.

PAUL BURTON: So I think it really has the potential to be, you know, a fundamental game changer in this second half of the pandemic, as we've now gone into, you know, this rapid evolution of more and more infectious subvariants of omicron. So it's really important.

STEIN: ...Because it could shore up waning immunity and give people stronger protection specifically against omicron, the variant driving the pandemic. The hope is the bolstered immunity could reduce the number of people who get mild breakthrough infections as well as severe disease hopefully long enough to get people through another wave of infections expected next winter and, Burton says, potentially even long enough for the vaccine to become an annual shot like the flu vaccine.

KELLY: Rob, I hear a lot of coulds and we hope this will happen in the answer there. How solid is Moderna's data on this?

STEIN: Yeah, good question. All we have at the moment is what Moderna released in a statement and told reporters during a briefing this morning. And the reaction, honestly, has been kind of mixed. Some independent scientists are optimistic, like Deepta Bhattacharya. He's an immunologist at the University of Arizona.

DEEPTA BHATTACHARYA: It sounds great because, you know, the omicron is working, and the update is working. You're getting more antibodies against omicron than if you just use the same old thing again. And so that's going to buy us more protection. It broadens out the immune response. It covers more territory of what the virus may do next.

STEIN: But other scientists are more pessimistic. They say the new vaccine's added protection looks kind of modest and there's no way to know how long it would last.

One big caveat is that the vaccine targets the original version of omicron, which has now been replaced by other super-contagious subvariants. I talked about this with Dr. Peter Hotez at the Baylor College of Medicine.

PETER HOTEZ: Now we're facing very different variants from omicron - BA.2.12, BA.2, BA.5. And I don't see anything here to make me believe that boosting with omicron would be superior to continued boosting with the original lineage.

STEIN: ...Since those new omicron subvariants are even better at sneaking around the immune system than the original one.

KELLY: And the virus, as we just heard, continues to change so fast. So who decides what happens next?

STEIN: Moderna is planning to ask the Food and Drug Administration to authorize this new booster, which the company says could be ready just in time for another booster campaign the federal government is already planning in the fall to protect people against another surge expected next winter. The FDA is gathering experts together at the end of the month to decide whether another booster is needed, who should get it and what it should be. Pfizer and BioNTech are also developing a new version of their vaccine targeted at omicron, and the National Institutes of Health is studying several possibilities. So we'll have to see which one they end up landing on.

KELLY: Yes, we will. NPR's Rob Stein, thanks.

STEIN: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.
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