Dr. Anthony Fauci Applauds Moderna's Program to Create COVID-19 Booster for South African Variant

As Moderna is set to begin working on a COVID-19 booster shot to combat the new South African variant of the virus, the United States' leading infectious diseases expert called the move "prudently cautious."

Speaking to Newsweek Monday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, stated the pharmaceutical company's move to expand on its COVID-19 vaccine production is to help combat any loss in the efficacy of the shot due to the mutant strains.

"We are being prudently cautious by already making moves toward developing booster shots that would specifically cover the mutants," Fauci said, confirming that both Pfizer and Moderna's COVID vaccines, the two currently authorized for distribution in the U.S. by the Food and Drug Administration, remain effective against the COVID-19 variants detected so far, including South Africa's B.1.351 and the United Kingdom's B.1.1.7 strain.

"At this point in time the vaccine as it currently exists does seem to be effective against the U.K. and the South Africa variant," Fauci said. "The South Africa is a bit more problematic because it diminishes -- but does not eliminate -- the efficacy of the current vaccine. There's enough cushion of response that it's still in the realm of a protective response."

Speaking to NBC's Today on Monday, Fauci stated experts don't take the current efficacy of the vaccine "lightly" and experts are concerned by the rapidly-evolving situation.

"We really need to make sure that we begin, and we already have, to prepare, if it's necessary to upgrade the vaccines," Fauci said. "Despite the fact that the vaccines we have right now do work."

Thus far, there is no proof the South African variant is more deadly than any other strain of COVID-19, though Fauci told Newsweek, but it is more easily transmitted. However, the strain has been detected across the globe in other countries like South Korea, Austria, Japan, France, Australia, Switzerland and Zambia.

COVID-19 South Africa
Infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci confirmed the COVID-19 vaccine is effective in neutralizing the fast-spreading B.1.351 strain of the virus, which originated in South Africa. City of Tshwane's Special Infection Unit paramedics push a man inside an ambulance showing symptoms of COVID-19 coronavirus in the isolation chamber equipped with a negative pressure filtration system from his home in the north of Pretoria, South Africa, on January 15, 2021. PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images

Though the U.K. recently announced the B.1.1.7 strain is more lethal, the variant won't be part of booster shot trials. In its statement, Moderna said it won't pursue a specific booster for the B.1.1.7 variant because the strain had "no significant impact" against the vaccine's efficacy. In the case of the South Africa variant, Moderna's study found the two-dose vaccine did not produce total immunity to the B.1.351 strain.

Stéphane Bancel, Chief Executive Officer of Moderna, said in a company statement that Moderna was beginning the trials of the booster out of an "abundance of caution" because the current two-dose vaccine is "expected to be protective against emerging strains detected to date."

But if the B.1.351 South Africa variant gained significant traction in the U.S., the booster would provide a next line of defense, Fauci told Newsweek."It won't substitute for the second shot. It would be an additional shot that could be used if in fact the mutant that is now currently in South Africa does arrive and become an issue in the U.S."

He added that developing the booster variant is relatively easy because of the way an mRNA vaccine, which is the type of vaccine for all COVID-19 inoculations, is structured. Rather than containing a live virus, the COVID-19 vaccines inject genetic code into the body which tells cells to produce a specific spike protein that prompts an immune response to the novel virus. To develop the booster shot, scientists will replace the current genetic code in the COVID-19 vaccine with that of the South Africa variant.

Moderna said that in addition to the variant booster trials, it will commence tests of a booster of the current COVID-19 vaccine to evaluate the vaccine's ability to fight "emerging strains beyond the existing primary vaccination series."

This is good. Moderna vaccine also retains neutralizing activity against emerging variants (intact for B.1.1.7 and 6x ⬇️ for B.1.351). Plus, they are now making a new vaccine with B.1.351 spike to test as booster. I bet other vaccine manufacturers are doing the same. https://t.co/SI9JeB4Nfl

— Prof. Akiko Iwasaki (@VirusesImmunity) January 25, 2021

Ahead of a booster's arrival, the Biden administration is already working to combat the introduction of the South Africa strain to the U.S. population. On Monday, President Joe Biden restored travel restrictions to non-U.S. citizens moving to or from 26 European countries, the U.K. and Ireland, in addition to a new restriction on South Africa.

Fauci said the additional restriction on South Africa will work like the restriction implemented in the European Union and the U.K., in which non-U.S. citizens will not be permitted to enter the country if they're traveling from a restricted place.

"The additional degree of restriction is that anybody from any country that wants to come into the U.S. has to have a negative test within a certain period of time before they get on the plane and then when they land they must quarantine for seven days and also get additional antigen test," Fauci said. He added that it would be up to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide local guidelines for the administration of the quarantine period.

Pfizer has also confirmed its vaccine should protect against the B.1.1.7 and B.1.351 variants.