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A new COVID-19 vaccine may be on the way


Another COVID-19 vaccine seems closer to becoming available in the United States. It's by a company called Novavax. Scientists at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration say it's highly effective at protecting people from COVID-19. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us. Rob, thanks so much for being with us.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: What's the point of another COVID vaccine at this point in the pandemic? How is it different from what we already have?

STEIN: Yeah, Scott, it might seem like the last thing the country needs right now is yet another vaccine, given that there's plenty of shots around and not a whole lot of people lining up to get them. But this is an entirely different kind of vaccine made by this company called Novavax. Let me explain. The two main vaccines used in this country are the Pfizer-BioNTech and the Moderna vaccines. Those are called mRNA vaccines because they inject a type of genetic code known as messenger RNA into the body. The genetic code carries instructions for cells to manufacture a key protein from the virus inside the body, and that triggers the immune system to mount a protective response. This new vaccine uses a more traditional strategy, a strategy that's been used for decades to make other vaccines. Here's Dr. Gregory Glenn from Novavax.


GREGORY GLENN: What makes us different is that we actually make the spike protein itself as an almost perfect replica of what you'd find on the surface of the virus.

STEIN: And inject that factory-made protein into the body, along with a substance designed to rev up the immune system even more, known as an adjuvant. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses a virus to carry a viral protein into the body, but that's been restricted because of a blood clotting problem. Yesterday, the FDA released an analysis of Novavax research that concluded that vaccine looks like it's about 90% effective at preventing mild, moderate and severe COVID-19.

SIMON: Which, of course, is great, but it's not better than the vaccines we already have, is it? Does Novavax have any unique advantages?

STEIN: The main reason some infectious disease experts are excited about this vaccine is that it would give people another option in case they can't take the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for some reason, or, you know, maybe because they feel more comfortable getting a vaccine that uses a more traditional approach, especially given all the misinformation that's been spread about the vaccines. I talked about this with John Moore at Weill Cornell Medicine.

JOHN MOORE: There's been a massive disinformation lie campaign against mRNA vaccines. Some of those lies about, for example, mRNA vaccines will modify human DNA, simply won't apply to the Novavax vaccine.

STEIN: And so making the Novavax vaccine available might help chip away at some of the millions of people who remain vulnerable because they still haven't gotten vaccinated. It may also be useful as a booster, since some evidence suggests stimulating people's immune systems in different ways might help protect them against a wider array of variants.

SIMON: Any safety concerns?

STEIN: The FDA scientists say the Novavax vaccine generally looks safe, but they did flag some concern about a handful of cases of a rare kind of heart inflammation among those who got vaccinated. That same kind of heart inflammation has occurred rarely among people getting the other vaccines. The company says those cases could have just been a coincidence.

SIMON: So the FDA says it seems effective. What happens next?

STEIN: The FDA is convening a committee of independent experts next Tuesday to dig through the data and decide whether to recommend the agency authorize the vaccine. If it does, the CDC would have to sign off. The same FDA committee is also meeting at the end of the month to decide what kind of booster to recommend in the fall. The idea is to try to blunt the severity of another wave of infections expected next winter. The Novavax vaccine could be in the mix for that.

SIMON: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein, thanks so much.

STEIN: Sure thing, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.