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A new, more traditional COVID shot may appeal to those hesitant to get mRNA vaccines

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A new COVID vaccine that could appeal to people who have been hesitant to get inoculated appears to be highly effective. That's according to an assessment released today by scientists at the Food and Drug Administration. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is here. Hey, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So yet another COVID vaccine. What is it?

STEIN: It's made by a company called Novavax, and it uses a much more traditional approach than the so-called mRNA vaccines. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines work by injecting genetic coding into muscles that cells then use to manufacture a key protein from the virus inside the body. That stimulates the immune system to activate protective immunity. This Novavax vaccine works by injecting a version of that viral protein itself that's been made in the laboratory, along with something known as adjuvant, kind of the substance that turbocharges the immune reaction. I talked about this yesterday with Dr. Gregory Glenn at Novavax.

GREGORY GLENN: Proteins made into that, purified, put into a solution have actually been used for quite a few vaccines very successfully, beginning with hepatitis B decades ago. And the flu, shingles vaccine - it follows a tradition of a good way to protect people against infectious disease.

STEIN: And today the FDA released its own assessment of the Novavax vaccine, saying a study conducted by the company involving about 30,000 people shows the vaccine looks to be about 90% effective at preventing mild, moderate and severe COVID-19.

KELLY: Ninety percent effective sounds great. But we already have Moderna. We already have the Pfizer-BioNTech. Why do we need another vaccine?

STEIN: Yeah. The thinking is that it's always good to have as many options as possible, like, you know, for people who can't take one of those vaccines for some reason or maybe haven't been willing to get one of those because they use a new technology or because they believe some of the misinformation out there that they're not safe. I talked about this with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House science advisor.

ANTHONY FAUCI: We all know there are certain people in the population who are still concerned about a vaccine that is relatively new in the arena of vaccinology. And they may want a more classical vaccine that we have years and years of experience with. Novavax might fill in that niche for those people who are reluctant to get an mRNA vaccine.

STEIN: But I have to say not everyone is so sure about this. Here's Saad Omer. He studies vaccines at Yale.

SAAD OMER: I'm not sure that I buy into that, unfortunately. It's not like there's a huge chunk of people just waiting for something other than an mRNA vaccine and they'll just get vaccinated. I don't think so.

STEIN: But another possible use of this vaccine is as a booster. The idea is that a totally different kind of vaccine could stimulate the immune system in a way that might provide longer-lasting, possibly broader protection against more variants. But that remains to be seen.

KELLY: So what are the bridges left to cross before we might see this vaccine made available?

STEIN: Yeah. So the FDA scientists are saying the vaccine looks generally pretty safe, though they are concerned about a handful of cases of a rare swelling of the heart that has been seen in some people who also got the mRNA vaccines. The company says those cases could have been just a coincidence. But the FDA is convening a committee of independent advisers next Tuesday to review the Novavax vaccine. One big open question is how well this will work against omicron, which wasn't circulating when the study was conducted. FDA scientists say they think it will, but that also remains unproven.

KELLY: All right. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein, thank you.

STEIN: Anytime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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