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Moderna working on COVID-19 vaccine booster for South African variant

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Moderna is developing a COVID-19 vaccine booster to fight off the more contagious strain of the virus first identified in South Africa.

Research showed the biotech firm’s vaccine provides protection against both the South African variant known as B1351 and the B117 strain that emerged in the United Kingdom, which have been driving up infections around the world.

But the neutralizing antibody response to the B1351 variant was six times weaker than those the vaccine produced for prior COVID-19 variants, raising concerns that vaccinated people’s immunity to that version of the bug could fade earlier, the Massachusetts-based company said Monday.

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That’s why Moderna plans to launch a clinical trial to test a booster vaccine that aims to provide stronger protection against B1351 and potentially against future variants.

“As we seek to defeat the COVID-19 virus, which has created a worldwide pandemic, we believe it is imperative to be proactive as the virus evolves,” Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said in a statement.

Bancel said Moderna is making the move out of “an abundance of caution” given that the existing vaccine generates an immune response that’s strong enough to ward off the South African strain despite being weaker than the response to other forms of COVID-19.

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Meanwhile, the B117 variant isn’t as much of a threat — Moderna said its study found “no significant impact” on the two-dose vaccine’s protection against that strain.

The study conducted with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Vaccine Research Center have not yet been peer-reviewed, according to the company.

The results were positive enough to send Moderna’s stock price up 5.2 percent to $137.83 shortly before Monday’s opening bell.

Fellow vaccine makers Pfizer and BioNTech released research earlier this month indicating that their shot works against the British and South African COVID-19 variants.

The Food and Drug Administration cleared Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines for emergency use in December after clinical trials found they were more than 94 percent effective. Both shots use messenger RNA, manufactured genetic material that’s injected into cells to provoke an immune response in the body.

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