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.