Moderna said that an updated COVID shot it’s developing can protect against a form of the coronavirus known as BA.2.86, or Pirola, adding to early evidence the emerging variant may not be as troublesome as scientists had feared.
The data, delivered in a press release on Wednesday, show that the vaccine helped spur an immune response in humans against Pirola. It follows an announcement by Moderna last month that the same vaccine appears protective against other currently circulating strains known as Eris and Formax.
The Food and Drug Administration is currently reviewing the booster shot, with a decision expected shortly.
Like other shots in development, Moderna’s vaccine was originally designed to target an earlier coronavirus variant called XBB. That vaccine was produced as part of a strategy Moderna and its rivals have adopted to update their shots to match emerging variants, rather than make more substantive changes such as a pan-coronavirus vaccine.
The coronavirus’ continued evolution is testing that strategy. The latest threat is BA.2.86, a highly altered form of the virus with over 30 mutations to its signature spike protein. Those characteristics are reminiscent of Omicron, which quickly spread across the globe after emerging in late 2021.
Some scientists have expressed concern the variant might be particularly adept at evading immunity from prior infections or vaccinations, potentially adding to an uptick in infections and hospitalizations that’s already begun in the U.S.
Yet early data suggests BA.2.86 may not be as tough a foe as some had feared. Over the weekend, a group of academic studies cited lab evidence suggesting that antibodies from earlier infections or vaccinations may hold up against the variant. Now Moderna claims its booster can generate a nearly nine-fold increase in neutralizing antibodies against BA.2.86, an indication it might protect against infection and disease.
“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," said Moderna president Stephen Hoge, in a statement.
Like Moderna, Pfizer and Novavax are working on updated shots ahead of a fall vaccination campaign. However, demand for vaccines has waned amid lower case counts. Moderna and Pfizer have each reported significant drop-offs in vaccine revenue this year.