Coronavirus: Moderna vaccine shows promise; produces immune response to COVID-19 in humans

A potential COVID-19 vaccine being developed by the biotech company Moderna has triggered a promising antibody response against the novel coronavirus, researchers reported Tuesday in The New England Journal of Medicine.

News of the results of the research on the first novel coronavirus vaccine to be tested in humans was greeted with cautious optimism among scientists as the vaccine was reported to have produced antibodies to the virus in all 45 patients tested in an initial safety trial.

The antibodies produced by the participants are neutralizing antibodies, according to the study. Neutralizing antibodies are a type of antibody that not only binds to a virus but binds in a way that blocks infection. 

The level of neutralizing antibodies reported to have been produced exceeded the levels seen in patients who get infected with the virus and recover, according to the study.

The study divided the 45 participants, who are between 18 and 55 years old, into three groups of 15 each to test doses of the vaccine in various levels - 25 micrograms, 100 micrograms and 250 micrograms.

The participants were given two doses of the vaccine 28 days apart.

According to the study’s results, antibody levels were found to be higher with higher level doses after the first round of vaccinations. After the second round of vaccinations, those in the study had higher levels of antibodies than most patients who have been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus and gone on to recover.

According to The Associated Press, the first-step testing later was expanded to include dozens of older adults. Those results aren’t public yet but regulators are evaluating them, The AP reported.  

“No matter how you slice this, this is good news,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the US government’s top infectious disease expert, told The AP.

The experimental vaccine is being developed by Fauci’s colleagues at the National Institutes of Health along with Moderna, Inc.

While the vaccine continues to show great promise, the study did note that more than half the participants experienced mild to moderate side effects including fatigue, chills, headache, body ache and pain at the injection site.

The side effects were not severe enough to end the study.

The results released Tuesday were first reported by Moderna in May. The company was criticized for releasing those results via a press release instead of releasing the full data about the study. At the time,  the company said that as a publicly-traded company it was legally obligated to report results of the study because it could affect the price of a share of company stock.

The announcement on Tuesday sent Moderna stock futures up 17% on Wednesday.

After the announcement in May, the company moved to the next stage of its trial, involving 600 people. It plans to move to the next phase of its research soon, launching a 30,000-person study to prove if the vaccine is strong enough to effectively protect against the coronavirus. Half of the participants will be given the drug and half will receive placebos.

That study will begin on July 27 and is expected to take until October to complete.

The Moderna vaccine is unlike traditional vaccines that use either an inactive virus or a weakened version of the virus to produce an immune response from the body. Moderna’s vaccine uses genetic material known as “messenger RNA” or mRNA, to make the body’s cells produce the spike protein that is a part of the coronavirus.

What the mRNA vaccine does is prompt the body to produce antibodies against the spike protein so that if a person is later exposed to the novel coronavirus it recognizes the protein and fights it.

An ongoing study by PolitiFact has tracked the progress of trials for drugs to fight COVID-19. According to the website’s reporting, the earliest a COVID-19 vaccine would be available would be late spring 2021.

Two other possible vaccines are in phase 3 clinical trials now, PolitiFact reports. “Another eight vaccines have begun phase 2 trials,” the story said, “and more than 100 other vaccines that haven’t begun clinical trials are in the pipeline.”