Americans may soon get a new COVID-19 vaccine option — shots made with a more traditional technology than mRNA versions. The big question: Why should they care?
After long delays, the Food and Drug Administration is expected to decide within weeks whether to authorize Novavax’s vaccine. It’s late in the pandemic for a new choice, with about three-quarters of U.S. adults already vaccinated.
But the company is hoping to find a niche among some of the unvaccinated millions who might agree to a more traditional kind of shot — a protein vaccine — and also to become a top choice for boosters, regardless of which type people got first. Only about half of vaccinated adults have gotten a booster.
The Novavax vaccine already is used in parts of Europe and multiple other countries, but FDA clearance is a key hurdle. And health experts are closely watching to see if a new tool offers advantages, either in enticing vaccine holdouts or maybe even offering somewhat broader immunity.
“What I’ve seen of the Novavax data so far is it’s a really impressive protein vaccine,” said University of Pennsylvania immunologist E. John Wherry.
The Novavax vaccine trains the body to fight the coronavirus by delivering copies of its outer coating, the spike protein. Those spike copies are grown in insect cells, purified and packaged into nanoparticles that to the immune system resemble a virus, said Novavax research chief Dr. Gregory Glenn.
Then an immune-boosting ingredient, or adjuvant, that’s made from the bark of a South American tree is added that acts as a red flag to ensure those particles look suspicious enough to spark a strong response.
“It’s basically a soap bubble. It’s made of stuff that you find in root beer,” Glenn said. “When an immune cell sees that, it becomes quite activated. … We supercharge the immune response.”
Protein vaccines have been used for years to prevent hepatitis B, shingles and other diseases.
It’s a very different approach than the Pfizer and Moderna shots. Those so-called mRNA vaccines have saved countless lives and changed the course of the pandemic but still, some people are uncomfortable with the new technology that delivers genetic instructions for the body to make its own spike copies. A third U.S. option, from Johnson & Johnson, isn’t as widely used.