This New COVID Vaccine May Offer Protection Against Severe Disease

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In 2021, a team of scientists led by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Weill Cornell Medicine, and NewYork-Presbyterian reported that the Moderna mRNA vaccine and a protein-based vaccine candidate containing an adjuvant, a substance that enhances immune responses, elicited durable neutralizing antibody responses to SARS-CoV-2 during infancy in pre-clinical studies.  

Now, a follow-up study by the same group, published in Science Translational Medicine, has demonstrated that the 2-dose vaccines continue to protect infant rhesus macaques from lung illness one year following vaccination.  

Kristina De Paris, Ph.D., professor of microbiology and immunology at the UNC School of Medicine, Sallie Permar, MD, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medicine, and Koen K.A.

Van Rompay, DVM, Ph.D., director of the Infectious Disease Unit at the California National Primate Research Center at the University of California, Davis, are co-senior authors of the paper. Emma C. Milligan, Children’s Research Institute, UNC School of Medicine, and Katherine Olstad, California National Primate Research Center, are co-first authors.  

As per a press release by UNC School of Medicine, to assess SARS-CoV-2 baby immunization, researchers inoculated two groups of eight infant rhesus macaques at 2 months of age and again four weeks later at the California National Primate Research Center.

Each animal was administered either a preclinical version of the Moderna mRNA vaccine or a vaccine combining a protein developed by the Vaccine Research Center of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, with a potent adjuvant formulation.

The adjuvant formulation, which consists of 3M’s molecular adjuvant 3M-052 produced in a squalene emulsion by the Access to Advanced Health Institute (AAHI), increases immunological responses by engaging immune cell receptors. Dr. De Paris stated, “Following our SARS-CoV-2 baby rhesus macaque research, we gave the animals a high-dose challenge with a SARS-CoV-2 variation one year later to evaluate the durability and efficiency of vaccine-induced immune responses.”

“Despite the fact that the challenge SARS-CoV-2 variants developed multiple mutations in their spike protein that differed from the vaccine immunogen, we discovered that both vaccinations protected against lung illness.”  

Dr. De Paris stated that the adjuvanted protein vaccine candidate retained higher levels of neutralizing antibodies and offered superior protection than the mRNA vaccination. These results suggest that these vaccines are both safe and extremely efficacious when administered to newborn macaques.

In addition, the results inform the optimization and development of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines in a manner that may lessen the need for repeated boosters and protect vulnerable populations, such as young children, with immature immune systems.  



Young newborns are one of the most vulnerable pediatric populations because of COVID-19. Dr. Permar, who is also the Nancy C. Paduano Professor in Pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medicine and pediatrician-in-chief at NewYork-Presbyterian Komansky Children’s Hospital, stated that a confluence of SARS-CoV-2, influenza, and RSV circulation is causing an increase in respiratory virus disease hospitalizations among infants this fall.

“We should explore every opportunity to provide our youngest patients with safe and effective vaccine protection, including exploring COVID-19 vaccination earlier than the currently recommended age of six months.”  “This study highlights the need to immunize as many infants as possible against SARS-CoV-2, as the benefits are obvious and long-lasting.

It also demonstrates the importance of animal models in infectious illness research,” according to Dr. Van Rompay. In order to more successfully combat outbreaks of new coronaviruses or other respiratory viruses in pediatric populations, the lessons we’ve learned and the resources and tools we’ve established in this study will be extremely useful for future pandemic preparedness. 

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