The National Institutes of Health has officially begun early-stage trials of an investigational COVID-19 vaccine developed by Moderna to protect against a concerning coronavirus variant that was first identified in South Africa late last year.
The NIH in a news release said the National Institue of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is part of the NIH, has officially begun its Phase 1 clinical trial in adult volunteers, expecting to enroll some 210 healthy adult volunteers to take part in the research at four separate sites in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Nashville and Seattle.
The trial will enroll people ages 18 years and older who already have received the mRNA-1273 vaccine, the original coronavirus vaccine developed by Moderna, as well as people 18-55 years of age who have not received any coronavirus vaccine, the NIH said, adding investigators expect full enrollment for the trial by the end of April.
The variant, scientifically referred to as B.1.351, was first detected in South African in October 2020. The strain is concerning because experts say it is more transmissible and likely more virulent than the original strain, meaning it may cause more severe illness. It has also shown to diminish efficacy from vaccines, and nearly escape antibody treatments. In response, several drugmakers, including Moderna, have since begun work on variant booster shots.
The South African variant has since been detected in at least nine U.S. states, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and the director of the NIAID, in a statement.
"Preliminary data show that the COVID-19 vaccines currently available in the United States should provide an adequate degree of protection against SARS-CoV-2 variants. However, out of an abundance of caution, NIAID has continued its partnership with Moderna to evaluate this variant vaccine candidate should there be a need for an updated vaccine," he added.
Public health experts have said that coronavirus mitigation measures that have been recommended since the start of the pandemic — wearing masks, social distancing, frequently washing the hands — can help protect against variants.