COVID-19 vaccine makers race to outpace variants of the virus

Health professionals fear new COVID strains could cause new surge in the Summer

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Even with the number of new coronavirus cases declining, Pfizer and Moderna are focusing on booster shots for their vaccines because of the emergence of new variants or mutations of the virus.

Nyla Johnson who attends Xavier University is not surprised.

“It is pretty early, but it’s expected,” she said.

Some public health experts fear the pace at which variants are emerging could cause COVID-19 cases to spike in coming months in the U.S.

Dr. Lisa Morici is part of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Tulane’s School of Medicine and does research on vaccines.

“We shouldn’t need a booster shot this quickly for coronavirus, it’s just that it’s infected the entire world and so it has a reservoir to rapidly mutate,” Morici said.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses and are based on the Messenger RNA platform. Morici says the companies are in a race against the variants.

“We’re trying to stay one step ahead of the mutations and so both Moderna and Pfizer are looking at a new formulation, so basically a Messenger RNA that encodes the instructions for making the variants, as opposed to the original spike protein, it would represent the variants,” said Morici.

The variant causing a lot of concern is B.1.351 which is the South Africa mutation. It appears to be skilled at getting around the body’s immune response to the infection or antibodies.

“It seems like that South African variant virus, you know, it takes basically more antibody to neutralize the virus than the original version,” said Morici.

Still, she tempers expectations on when booster shots will be ready for the public.

“These third booster doses that we’re talking about are still either in the development or testing phase, so those would probably not be available for many months and hopefully they wouldn’t be needed for many months,” said Morici.

Tweaking vaccines is not new, it happens to the flu vaccine.

“Every year we try to predict what strain is circulating in the population and we design the vaccine to protect against that strain. Flu mutates much more rapidly than coronaviruses do,” said Morici.

Johnson has taken note of how some common vaccines are updated.

“I’m not concerned about that, just like, you know, the flu vaccine and everything else and H1N1 and chickenpox and things like that, just like you need booster shots for those I don’t see anything or problems with needing a booster shot for COVID,” she said.

And the talk about boosters aside, scientists say it remains important that everyone gets whatever vaccine is readily available.

Morici says the virus remains potent even in its original state.

“This is still a virus that causes severe disease and death,” said Morici.

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