No one knows when the next COVID-19 variant will arrive and how dangerous it will be, but researchers at NYU Langone Hospital–Long Island are preparing for it.
The hospital is among 22 sites nationwide participating in a federally funded study to create vaccines that are more effective against future variants than the current ones.
COVID-19 constantly mutates. That can cause problems because a vaccine that works well against one version of the virus may not work as well against another. The current vaccines were designed to fight the original COVID-19 strain.
The omicron variant and its subvariants, which now account for almost all U.S. cases, are better able to evade some of the protection that current vaccines offer. That’s why more vaccinated people have been getting infected than pre-omicron, although in April, unvaccinated people were still twice as likely to test positive as vaccinated people, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. An unvaccinated person 12 or older in March was 17 times more likely to die of COVID-19, CDC data shows.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Research at NYU Langone Hospital–Long Island is part of a nationwide study to create vaccines that could work against future, potentially more dangerous COVID-19 variants.
- The current vaccines were designed to protect against the original COVID-19 strain, but they may not work as well against future variants.
- The vaccines being studied are 15 combinations of existing vaccines — both the currently authorized vaccines, and ones that are still being studied.
Protection from the vaccines wanes over time, which is why booster shots are recommended. But even protection from boosters wanes. A study published by the CDC in February found that a booster reduces the chance of hospitalization by 91% two months after injection, but 78% after four months.
The vaccines wane more with omicron than with previous variants, said Dr. Martín Bäcker, associate director of NYU Long Island’s vaccine center and principal investigator for the Long Island segment of the study on vaccines for future variants.
The goal of the research is to find out if a combination of vaccines — currently authorized ones and others that are still being studied — can better ramp up the body’s immune response, Bäcker said.
“We think with this combination there may be broader protection," and that the protection may wane more slowly, he said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is sponsoring the clinical trials, said in a March 30 statement that “we are looking beyond the omicron variant to determine the best strategy to protect against future variants.”
NYU Long Island began enrolling participants in April and has about 32 so far, Bäcker said. Researchers hope to eventually have 1,500 participants nationwide, according to the institute.
Study participants must have received their first booster. They then receive an injection of the experimental vaccine combination.
Frederick Scala, 66, of Mineola, said he volunteered for the trial because “I just felt maybe I could help a bit.”
Scala said he is a strong believer in vaccines.
“I don’t want to bring it home to my family,” he said. “I live with my mother-in-law, and she’s a senior.”
Researchers are studying 12 combinations of vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, Bäcker said. They include the vaccines now in use, in addition to investigational ones designed to target the omicron, delta and beta variants, he said.
Scala, for example, said he received a combination of omicron and delta vaccines in early May. He is part of the only group in the study that will receive two additional booster shots of the experimental vaccine combination, not just one. Scala is scheduled to get the other booster in July.
Researchers also are beginning to study three more vaccine combinations that include more traditional, protein-based vaccines, such as Novavax, which a Food and Drug Administration advisory committee endorsed on June 7, Bäcker said.
After participants receive the vaccine combinations, researchers take their blood samples and expose those samples to COVID-19 in the lab, he said.
Currently, blood is being exposed to multiple existing variants. If a new variant emerges, blood will be exposed to that variant as well, Bäcker said.
“You can take that into the laboratory and see how well the antibodies made in response to these vaccines neutralize these new variants,” he said.
Effective antibodies stop the virus from entering human cells, he said.
“If it can’t enter the cell, it cannot infect,” he said. “That’s what you’re testing in the lab.”
Scientists will collect data on how well each of the 15 different vaccine combinations perform, he said.
“If we find that, let’s say, beta plus omicron [vaccines] actually neutralize a lot better than having received an original [vaccine], that would be a suggestion that you’ll get better protection, and that may be the way to go,” Bäcker said.
Performing the tests in the lab will save valuable time if a new variant emerges, because researchers will be able to quickly test the vaccine combinations in the blood samples against the new variant, he said.
Bäcker said it’s unclear if the research will lead to more effective vaccines.
But, he said, “We don’t know if we don’t study it.”