The scientific and pharmaceutical race to keep coronavirus vaccines ahead of new virus variants escalated Monday, even as a highly transmissible variant first detected in people who had recently travelled to Brazil was discovered in Minnesota.
Moderna, the maker of one of the two authorized coronavirus vaccines in the United States, announced it would develop and test a new vaccine tailored to block a similar mutation-riddled virus variant in case an updated shot becomes necessary.
The effort is a precautionary step. Evidence released Monday suggested that the Moderna vaccine will still work against two variants of concern that emerged in the United Kingdom and South Africa. The plan highlights that the scientists who responded with unprecedented speed and success to develop coronavirus vaccines are already moving to address new challenges. It also amplifies the urgency of getting as many people immunized with current vaccines as quickly as possible.
“We need to double down on public health measures. The less a virus spreads, the less it’s going to mutate,” said Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “We need to get as many people vaccinated with the current vaccine that we have as we possibly can … and prepare for the potential eventuality that we might have to update this vaccine sometime in the future.”
The success of two remarkably effective coronavirus vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech in record time last year provided breathing room and hope, even as the pandemic surged. But the detection of variants in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil in recent weeks raised immediate concern.
Those variants, each with a different assemblage of mutations, spread much more easily. But some of the mutations in each variant drew special concern because they sit in the spiky proteins that dot the outside of the coronavirus and have been the key target for vaccines and therapeutics.