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Fact/Fiction: Is the Moderna vaccine less effective against new variants?

Old news, truthfully retold. This week we look at the Moderna vaccine to see if it really does protect against new Covid-19 variants

Every week in Fact/Fiction, The Big Issue examines spurious claims, questionable studies or debatable stories from the press to determine whether they are fact or fiction. This week we focus on the Moderna vaccine ahead of its arrival in the UK. New studies into how it fares against new Covid-19 variants in the UK and South Africa produced different takes in the press. We investigate.

How it was told

Right now, we all fancy ourselves to be armchair epidemiologists, pinning all our hopes on the vaccines to get us out of this global pandemic.

That’s why any news doubting the efficacy of the injections is a devastating blow and attracts extreme scrutiny. One such story was widely debunked last week when German financial newspaper Handelsblatt claimed the AstraZeneca vaccine had just eight per cent efficacy – though this figure was just a proportion of 56 to 69-year-olds in the study.

Another story examining how effective a vaccine is against new strains of the virus attracted plenty of varying coverage too. The Moderna vaccine, which was approved for use in the UK and is set to be rolled out in the spring, was tested against mutated strains found in the UK and South Africa.

The headlines were mixed. The BBC reported the story as “Moderna vaccine appears to work against variants” while The Sun was equally hopeful, opting for: “JAB BOOST Moderna vaccine DOES protect against ‘deadlier mutant Covid strains’ – as they trial booster to fend off future variants”. Time magazine and the Evening Standard also covered the story in similar fashion.

Elsewhere there were different takes. US broadcaster NPR went for: “Moderna finds Covid-19 vaccine less effective against variant found in South Africa”. The FT’s headline read: “Moderna develops new vaccine to tackle mutant Covid strain”.

So was this a positive story to reassure you that a vaccine will be effective, or is there anything to worry about?

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Facts. Checked

This is a reassuring story that shows one of the three major vaccines is still effective against a virus that is continuing to mutate.

In fact, it was the NPR story that raised the ire of epidemiologists online. And subsequently, NPR was moved to change its headline to “Moderna finds Covid-19 vaccine still protects against emerging strains”.

Dr Dylan Morris, a postdoctoral research scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, described the NPR headline as “not just misleading sensationalism; it’s literally incorrect as stated”.

Dr Morris took issue with the headline based on the use of “effective”, which has a technical meaning in relation to vaccines as it measures the percentage reduction in a disease in a group of people who received a vaccination in a clinical trial.

In the case of this Moderna study, the efficacy of the vaccine was not assessed in clinical trials with human beings butvia in vitro neutralisation studies in a lab.

The stories come from two studies published by the pharmaceutical firm testing their vaccine against two new strains. While both studies are currently pre-prints and need further research and peer review, “the vaccine is expected to be protective against emerging strains detected to date,” according to Moderna.

It is true that the firm is developing new booster jabs to protect against future strains. As Stéphane Bancel, Moderna chief executive, put it: “We believe it is imperative to be proactive as the virus evolves.”

For the so-called UK strain, neutralising antibody titers – the measurement of the amount or concentration of antibodies found in a person’s blood – remained high and were generally consistent with prior variants.

And for the South African strain, the concentration of titers was approximately six-fold lower when compared to prior variants. This suggests that immunity may wane quicker but the point here is the vaccine still protects against the Covid-19 virus.

Professor Paul Hunter of the University of East Anglia described the results as “not surprising” but said that an accumulation of mutations will impact on the efficacy of vaccines over time. He said: “But this is to be expected and should not pose insurmountable difficulties for control of the epidemic.”

The problem in this case comes from the difficulty in reporting on Covid-19. It’s not easy to cover a story that is constantly evolving and changing and processing technical, complicated science. Here NPR fell foul of that technical language.

But it is important to retain faith in the vaccines as they continue to be rolled out.

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