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A new version of Moderna's COVID vaccine provides strong protection against Omicron

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

There's a potentially promising development this morning about COVID-19 vaccines. Moderna says that a new version of its vaccine appears to provide strong protection against the omicron variant. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now to discuss.

Good morning.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So what is this new version of Moderna's vaccine?

STEIN: It targets the original strain of the virus and the omicron variant. It's a kind of double-barreled vaccine known as a bivalent vaccine. And the company says it looks like it provides much stronger protection against omicron than the original shot when used as a booster, boosting the level of antibodies against omicron much more than just getting another shot of the original vaccine.

Here's Dr. Paul Burton, the chief medical officer at Moderna.

PAUL BURTON: For the first time in the world, we now know that if you vaccinate people with a booster that contains the omicron messenger RNA, you can give them extremely good antibody levels of protection against omicron. That's new. We didn't know that. We predicted it, but we didn't know it. So that's very important.

STEIN: And Burton thinks the protection is so strong that it could potentially last a year, meaning people would only need annual boosters from now on.

FADEL: So does this mean everyone should get yet another booster, but this time with this new double-barreled vaccine?

STEIN: Well, you know, I need to stress that all we know about this right now is what the company is saying in a news release. They haven't released detailed data that other scientists have been able to verify. Some say the results appear to be very exciting, assuming the company's claims hold up under further scrutiny.

Here's Deepta Bhattacharya, an immunologist at the University of Arizona.

DEEPTA BHATTACHARYA: It sure sounds like the omicron-updated vaccine is working, which is very good news.

STEIN: It would be very good news because the protection people got from their original shots so far has been fading, especially against the omicron variant. And new, even more contagious omicron variants are taking over this country. And yet another wave of infections is likely next winter, when the cold weather drives everyone back indoors, where the virus spreads more easily. Other experts I've been in touch with about this this morning, though, remain skeptical, especially about how well the vaccine might work against some of these newer omicron subvariants that are even better at dodging the immune system.

FADEL: So what's next, then, in the process for this vaccine?

STEIN: So Moderna says it's submitting the company's results to the Food and Drug Administration, which is convening a meeting of outside experts at the end of the month to make some very important decisions. Is yet another booster definitely needed? If so, who should get one? Is it just people at high risk, or is it everybody? And if we need another shot, what should that next shot be exactly? Pfizer and BioNTech are also testing a bivalent version of their vaccine that targets omicron. And the National Institutes of Health is testing a variety of possibilities.

FADEL: So you joined us earlier this morning to talk about another COVID vaccine that's making progress as well. Can you tell us about that one from Novavax?

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. That's right. That's right. A key Food and Drug Administration advisory panel yesterday recommended the FDA authorize yet another vaccine - this Novavax vaccine. The hope is that it might entice some of the millions of people who still haven't gotten vaccinated to finally get inoculated because the Novavax vaccine uses a much more traditional technology. So it might appeal to people who are uncomfortable with the newer genetic technique the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines use. That Novavax vaccine may also be useful as a booster as well.

FADEL: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein, thank you so much.

STEIN: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.