Forget what you knew about the Pfizer gang and Moderna bros; there’s a new vax in town: Novavax. While it’s yet to be approved, the hype around it is growing. Scientists believe the vaccine, which uses more traditional vax technology than the newly approved mRNA shots, may hold the key to reducing vaccine hesitancy, and be more easily distributable around the world.
But as the New York Times reported, we’re already “awash in other shots,” and current vaccine supply is higher than demand. So why the hype around a fourth vaccine option that seemingly emerged from the ether? Or, in simpler terms, what is Novavax, and why are scientists so stoked about it? To learn more, VICE spoke with MarkAlain Dery, an infectious disease doctor in New Orleans, about why we’re hearing so much about Novavax, just now.
What makes Novavax different from the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines?
Both Pfizer and Moderna are mRNA vaccines, a long-studied but previously unused technology that scientists are jazzed about. Here’s a nice YouTube video from Harvard that explains how the mRNA vaxes work, if you’re interested. Simply put: Think of the mRNA as a set of instructions that tell your body how to produce the coronavirus “spike protein.” The immune system detects that spike protein and kicks into gear to create antibodies that prevent infection.
Novavax, by comparison, is a shortcut. Instead of containing instructions in the form of mRNA, the Novavax shot contains the actual coronavirus spike protein. As Dery explained, this is a much more traditional vaccine technology. It’s called the protein subunit approach, has been in use since 1986, and is how some hepatitis B, pertussis, and flu vaccines work.
In the absolute simplest of terms: mRNA vaccines teach your body to create crucial spike protein, while Novavax gives the spike protein hands the spike protein right to your body.
So the Novavax is basically coronavirus?
No! Of course, shit-stirrers who turned people against the mRNA vaccine for unfounded reasons might have an even easier time with the Novavax by claiming it “contains COVID.” But we can’t stress enough that the entire point of vaccines is to help bodies build up immunities without putting anyone in danger; like other protein subunit vaccines, Novavax only uses coronavirus spike protein—a harmless protein that can’t cause COVID-19.
Vaccine hesitancy in the United States is rampant; as the Washington Post reported, there are 10 states in which fewer than 35 percent of adults are vaccinated, despite abundant vax supply. As a study published by PLOS One in May found, the most common reason for vaccine hesitancy is related to rampant misinformation and scaremongering about mRNA technology (e.g. that the mRNA vaxes will “change our DNA,” cause infertility, and was developed too fast).
“For vaccine hesitant folks, Novavax eliminates the argument that this was developed ‘too quickly,’” Dery said. “All of those arguments don’t hold up.”
The other major plus, Dery explained, is that Novavax doesn’t need to be stored at the same freezing temps that the other vaccines do, making it easier to distribute globally. Even if Novavax never fully takes off in the U.S., it could be a game changer in countries like India, where vaccine demand is currently much higher than current supply.
But this isn’t the first non-mRNA vax, right? The Johnson & Johnson one isn’t mRNA, either.
Right. The Johnson & Johnson vax uses a disabled version of a different virus (adenovirus) to deliver instructions for creating a COVID spike protein.
Just like scientists are stoked now about Novavax, they were stoked about J&J, referring previously to the more-traditional vaccine as a likely “turning point” in the pandemic. But after reports of a rare but serious blood-clotting disorder caused a 10-day pause in distribution, less than four percent of adults in the U.S. received the J&J vax. Now Novavax is here to potentially pick up the population that would’ve been into J&J, as an alternative to the (very safe and effective) mRNA shots.
Why am I hearing so much about Novavax right now?
In a recent Phase 1 trial, Novavax had a 96 percent efficacy rate against the B.1.1.7 variant, the most common COVID variant in the U.S.. That’s slightly higher than the Phase 3 trials for both Pfizer and Moderna.
As Dery said and studies have shown, Novavax also appears to be highly effective (90 percent) against a mixture of variants, which is an increasing concern as the Delta variant spreads around the world. (To be fair, ongoing studies suggest that Moderna and Pfizer are also effective against new variants.)
Sounds great. So can I get it now?
No! Despite ample federal funding, Novavax won’t seek FDA approval until late September, meaning we are still months away from a potential fourth vax in the United States. Experts worry that Novavax, despite all its glittering promise, will come too late in the pandemic to take off in the U.S., but as Dery said, it holds a lot of global potential.
The only significant downsides are that Novavax isn’t yet available and requires two doses. Otherwise, scientists are hopeful that this new vax option might actually mark a turning point in the global fight to curb COVID-19.
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