Mutant Wars: Moderna Takes Aim At South African Virus Variant

Moderna is jumping at the opportunity to take a stab (figuratively and literally) at the South African variant of COVID-19, which some worry could evade the vaccines.

In a press release Monday, the company said that a study “showed no significant impact on neutralizing titers against the [UK] variant relative to prior variants” and while there was “a six-fold reduction in neutralizing titers observed with the [South African] variant… neutralizing titer levels remain[ed] above levels that are expected to be protective.”

Still, Moderna isn’t taking any chances. Although the existing evidence suggests its vaccine retains efficacy in the face of emerging mutations, the company announced it will “proactively address the pandemic as the virus continues to evolve.” As it relates to the South African variant, that means the following:

First, the Company will test an additional booster dose of its COVID-19 Vaccine (mRNA-1273) to study the ability to further increase neutralizing titers against emerging strains beyond the existing primary vaccination series. Second, the Company is advancing an emerging variant booster candidate (mRNA-1273.351) against the B.1.351 variant first identified in the Republic of South Africa. The Company is advancing mRNA-1273.351 into preclinical studies and a Phase 1 study in the U.S. to evaluate the immunological benefit of boosting with strain-specific spike proteins. Moderna expects that its mRNA-based booster vaccine (whether mRNA-1273 or mRNA-1273.351) will be able to further boost neutralizing titers in combination with all of the leading vaccine candidates.

As you can imagine, the market liked the sound of that. Well, I mean, not the sound of a vaccine-resistant strain. Rather, the market liked that Moderna is seemingly moving quickly to address the potential for the South African variant to become problematic for the inoculation push.

The shares surged more than 10% Monday morning. The company later said a shot targeting the South African variant could come as soon as late summer. Jefferies’ Michael Yee remarked that mRNA “will remain a leader and one step ahead of other players,” when it comes to battling the mutations.

“What is unknowable right now is what will happen in six months, 12 months, especially to the elderly,” Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel told CNBC, in an interview.

“We decided to [take a new vaccine] into the clinic, out of an abundance of caution,” he added. “We cannot fall behind this virus. [It] will keep mutating.”

In a new note, Goldman laid out the ramifications of a vaccine-resistant strain, projecting that it would take around 10 months from the time such a mutation began to spread to reach herd immunity. That assumes a vaccine variant to suppress a mutation could be developed and approved in less than five months.

Read more:

‘The Most Severe Risk’: Goldman On Vaccine-Resistant Virus Mutations


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6 thoughts on “Mutant Wars: Moderna Takes Aim At South African Virus Variant

  1. sounds like COVID vaccines will become a recurrent proposition going forward, similar to what is commonly done for Flu. tweek the sequence every year and administer a booster in the fall. Good for MRNA and BNTX. Other vaccine technologies will be hard to adjust as fast.

  2. I am more concerned about the recent study that says once the virus infects your brain it may hide there even after you have ‘recovered’ causing relapses and neurological damage like MS or Parkinsons. The research paper is published in Viruses magazine. Original link from WebMD.

    1. Found the WebMD article as well as the Viruses mag one. Single team from Georgia State University, small study, needs to be corroborated. Slow progressive brain injury for (what percentage of?) the survivors. Trying to not make too much of a single study but the light at the end of the tunnel just got dimmer. …or maybe it’s the remaining virus in my brain.

  3. This is bullish for MRNA and PFE/BNTX – a scenario in which only the companies using mRNA technology can timely address virus variants is quite excellent for those stocks.

    This is a little bearish for countries that didn’t secure large volumes of MRNA and PFE/BNTX vaccine, but not as much as the knee-jerk reaction might suggest, as they probably contracted specifically for MRNA-1273 and BNT162b2, not for MRNA01274 or BNT163bX.

    This is bearish for China, whose home-grown vaccines are at best middling and not based on technology as flexible as mRNA, and whose political interests (both external aka ‘vaccine diplomacy’ and domestic) make buying Western vaccines fraught.

    And obviously this is bearish for AZN JNJ NVAX, unless future vaccination regimens are a combined dose of their vaccine (to deal with the original virus variants) and the new mRNA vaccines (to deal with the new variants).

    Personally, I’m skeptical that the virus can effectively evade the current MRNA and PFE/BNTX vaccines, since they encode the entire spike protein.

  4. I could have sworn reading Trevor Bedford’s account of the titer efficacy on his twitter account, (sorry, i beg your pardon and other apologies, but I NEEDED to type that out) that neutralizing effect of titer concentration had already been found in this study to be reduced to a level that called for a reformulation of the vaccine for the ‘South African’ strain. He pointed out that the reduction in titer efficacy required to reach that point was eight-fold, and that mark seemed to have been surpassed in the study.

    Here is the link to this thread:

  5. The tweet you linked to refers to convalescent sera from persons previously recovered from Covid, not to the efficacy of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines. In the past few days, both companies have confirmed – via preprint for Biontech and press release for Moderna – their current vaccines are effective against both the UK and SA variants. They can also, of course, revise their vaccines to directly encode any variant.

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