It’s the age of the scientist. Their stature has shot up as the world wakes up to the fact we are all dependent on their ingenuity to give us the tools to manage the coronavirus, its variants and the pandemic.
They are constantly scouring the horizon for the next challenge and right now that is the emergence of Covid variants that could evade our existing vaccines.
There are more ways than one to skin a cat and more ways than one to get the better of coronavirus.
Focusing on the current coronavirus variants, the Kent variant has eight mutations and the South African variant has 10.
Both are more infectious than the original virus. The Brazil variant has much in common with the South African mutation.
As described in the BMJ by JaniceHopkins Tanne, US drug firm Moderna has risen to the challenge by developing two approaches to combat emerging variants, after their studies found the South African variant was less sensitive to their vaccine.
Both the Pfizer and Moderna Covid vaccines, unlike the vaccines we already use for other diseases, have been developed using ribonucleic acid (RNA) technology. RNA, closely related to DNA, is present in all living cells.
Professor Andrew Pollard, who led the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine trials, revealed in the BMJ that changing the vaccine isn’t a big job and was “relatively straightforward”, adding, “you just have to synthesise a new bit of DNA in our case – or RNA in the case of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines – and then insert that into the new vaccine.
“Then there’s a bit of work to do to manufacture the new vaccine, which is a reasonably heavy lift. But the same processes would be used.”
As the Moderna vaccine is somewhat less effective against the South African variant, the company is looking for ways to boost immunity to new variants.
Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said: “We believe it is imperative to be proactive as the virus evolves.”
Moderna’s first approach is to add a third dose of its vaccine to the original two doses to see if it would be effective against new variants. And secondly, it has developed a booster vaccine against the South African variant and early human studies in the US are under way.
The trial includes several thousand participants divided into two groups. One will receive a booster third dose of the original two-dose vaccine, while the second group will receive a single dose of the booster.
This is both a brave and creative strategy because they may be granted a licence for this booster faster than is required for a new vaccine.