Vaccines vs. Variants: Race to get ahead of COVID-19

With dangerous new variants of COVID-19 appearing worldwide including California, manufacturers are racing to keep their vaccines a step ahead of the virus.

Video Transcript

- With dangerous new variants of COVID-19 appearing world wide, including California, manufacturers are racing to keep their vaccines a step ahead of the virus. And the speed at which they're able to tweak the formulas is breathtaking by historic standards.

BALI PULENDRAN: We've all heard how quick the messenger RNA vaccines can be made.

- Bali Pulendran is a professor and Infectious disease researcher at Stanford. He says the cutting edge messenger RNA technique used to produce the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines gives both companies a powerful advantage. It's the ability to quickly rewrite genetic instructions. The formula is used to trigger an immune response rather than developing new vaccine components from scratch.

- You just have to know the sequence, and then you can design the mRNA very, very quickly. And we've that.

- Moderna just announced that it's already designated an updated version of its COVID vaccine to combat the South African strain and sent it to the National Institutes of Health for evaluation. Pfizer and partner BioNTech says they're also studying new booster formulas. Although, the new Johnson and Johnson vaccine uses a different technique, which employs a disabled virus to carry COVID DNA into the body, experts say it can also be tweaked much faster than older vaccine methods.

PHILIP GRANT: So if there are differences in the spike protein of these variants, they can be included into newer versions of both these types of vaccines.

- The extra protection could be delivered in several ways. Some have suggested a booster shot with existing vaccines may be enough for the short term. A variant specific booster could also be added to the regimen to target new strains, while some researchers believe a new vaccine could target elements of both the old and new strains in what's called a multivalent booster.

- So in this way, even though you're boosting the immune response towards the South Africa strain, you still make sure that the immune system remembers the original Wuhan strain.

- Whatever the strategy, experts we spoke with expect a quick rollout if necessary. Historic speed to confront a fast moving enemy.