NIH to test revamped Moderna COVID-19 vaccine against South Africa virus variant

The National Institutes of Health has begun a phase 1 trial of a new version of Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine designed to combat the virus variant first discovered in South Africa, called B.1.351, the NIH said March 31. 

The trial will enroll about 210 health adults at four research sites in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Nashville and Seattle. Sixty of those people will be those who participated in Moderna's phase 1 trial of its original COVID-19 vaccine last year, and 150 will be people ages 18 to 55 who haven't received any COVID-19 vaccine. 

The 60 people who participated in the original trial will be split into three groups, the NIH said. One will be given the new version of Moderna's vaccine at a higher dose, one will be given the new version at a lower dose, and the rest will get a booster shot of the original vaccine. 

The NIH said it expects the trial will be fully enrolled by the end of April. 

Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is funding the trial, said that preliminary data has shown that the COVID-19 vaccines currently available in the U.S. should provide an adequate degree of protection against virus variants, but "out of an abundance of caution, NIAID has continued its partnership with Moderna to evaluate this variant vaccine candidate should there be a need for an updated vaccine."

Dr. Fauci noted that the variant has been detected in at least nine U.S. states. It also appears to spread easier than the original virus strain and may evade some existing drugs used to treat COVID-19 as well as some vaccines, according to The Hill

Moderna has said its original vaccine showed a sixfold reduction in the level of antibodies it produces against the B.1.351 variant, The Hill reported. 

The FDA said that clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccines to combat virus variants don't need to be as long as the original trials and that it will work to speed the authorization of any vaccines designed to target virus variants. 

Read the NIH's full news release here

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