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Moderna Says Updated COVID Shot Shields Against Highly Mutated New Variant

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 6, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- Some good news for folks who are worried about the new, troublesome COVID variant known as BA.2.86: Moderna Inc. said Wednesday that its updated vaccine held its own against this highly mutated version of the virus.

While approval for the newest version of the vaccine is still pending from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the company offered good reason for why the agency should give its blessing to the latest shot for this fall: It generated an 8.7-fold increase in neutralizing antibodies against BA.2.86, also known as Pirola.

"These results demonstrate that our updated COVID-19 vaccine generates a strong human immune response against the highly mutated BA.2.86 variant. Taken together with our previously communicated results showing a similarly effective response against EG.5 and FL.1.5.1 variants, these data confirm that our updated COVID-19 vaccine will continue to be an important tool for protection as we head into the fall vaccination season," Moderna President Dr. Stephen Hoge said in a company news release.

Public health officials are already closely watching the BA.2.86 variant, which has over 30 mutations compared to earlier Omicron variants. The emergence of BA.2.86, in addition to the growing prevalence of the EG.5 and FL1.5.1 variants, underscores the need for an updated COVID vaccine, which can help reduce severe disease and hospitalizations, the company added.

Luckily, early lab tests on the new variant suggest it is not as nimble at evading immunity as first feared.

Scientists, including those in China and Sweden, are finding that the variant appears to be less concerning than initially thought.

So far, BA.2.86 has spread to the United States and 10 other countries. Denmark has reported the most sequences. In all, about three dozen sequences have been seen in a global repository over the past month, CNN reported.

“My friends, this is not the second coming of Omicron. If it were, it is safe to say we would know by now,” Dr. Bill Hanage, an epidemiologist who is co-director of Harvard University’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, said in a social media post.

In China, researchers determined that BA.2.86 looks different to the immune system than earlier COVID variants and can escape some immunity, CNN reported.

Among the findings are that there was a twofold drop in the ability of vaccination and recent infection to neutralize BA.2.86, compared to viruses from XBB.1.5, Yunlong Cao from the Biomedical Innovation Center at Peking University, told CNN. But it was also 60% less infectious than XBB.1.5 variants.

“I would say it will slowly circulate in the population. It will not be able to compete with other fast prevailing variants,” Cao said, referring to variants EG.5 and FL.1.5.1.

Meanwhile, in experiments at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, researchers used blood from human donors collected in late 2022 and from late August to test the impact of antibodies against BA.2.86.

While the older blood samples couldn’t stop BA.2.86, those obtained later did better, CNN reported.

“Overall, it doesn’t appear to be nearly as extreme a situation as the original emergence of Omicron,” principal researcher Benjamin Murrell wrote in a social media post.

“It isn’t yet clear whether BA.2.86 [or its offspring] will outcompete the currently circulating variants, and I don’t think there is yet any data about its severity, but our antibodies do not appear to be completely powerless against it,” he noted.

Both studies had limitations: Among them are that researchers were testing models of the virus, and not the actual virus, CNN reported.

Still, the results were encouraging.

“The news is better than I was expecting,” Dr. Ashish Jha, former White House COVID-19 response coordinator said in a social media post. “And [it] makes me more encouraged that the new upcoming vaccine will have a real benefit against current dominant variant [EG.5], as well as BA.2.86.”

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on COVID variants.

SOURCES: Moderna Inc., news release, Sept. 6, 2023; CNN

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