Vaccines vs. Variants: How manufacturers are racing to get ahead of COVID-19

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- With dangerous new variants of COVID-19 appearing worldwide including California, manufacturers are racing to keep their vaccines a step ahead of the virus. And the speed at which they're able to tweak the formulas is breathtaking by historic standards.

"We've all heard how quick the messenger RNA vaccines can be made," says Prof. Bali Pulendran, Ph.D., an infectious disease researcher at Stanford

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Pulendran says the cutting-edge messenger-RNA technique used to produce the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines gives both companies a powerful advantage. It's the ability to quickly rewrite genetic instructions the formulas use to trigger an immune response, rather than developing new vaccine components from scratch.

"You just have to know the sequence and you can design the mRNA very quickly, and we've seen that."

Moderna just announced that it's already designed an updated version of its COVID vaccine to combat the South African strain and sent it to the National Institutes of Health for evaluation. Pfizer and partner BioNTech, say they're also studying new booster formulas. Although the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses a different technique, which employs a disabled virus to carry COVID DNA into the body, experts say it can also be tweaked much faster than older vaccine methods.

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Since the coronavirus started spreading across the globe in late 2019, scientists have been looking for a vaccine. Now that vaccines are proven, it will ultimately be up to each state to determine who will get the vaccine, and when?

"If there are differences in the spike proteins of these variants, then they can be included into newer versions of both these types of vaccines," says Dr. Philip Grant, M.D., who led the trial of Johnson & Johnson's vaccine at Stanford.

The extra protection could be delivered in several ways. Some have suggested a booster shot with existing vaccines may be enough for the short term. A variant-specific booster could also be added to the regimen to target new strains. While some researchers believe a new vaccine could target elements of both the old and new strains in what's called a multivalent booster.

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"So in this way, even though you're boosting the immune response towards the South African strain, you still make sure the immune system remembers the original Wuhan strain," explains Pulendran.

Whatever the strategy, experts we spoke with expect a quick rollout if necessary. Historic speed, to confront a fast-moving enemy.

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