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Makers testing COVID vaccine updates in case mutations get stronger

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Back in the summer, COVID-19 symptoms forced Lauren LaPlante to go on oxygen for two and a half months. (Photo: KUTV)

Back in the summer, COVID-19 symptoms forced Lauren LaPlante to go on oxygen for two and a half months.

“My health took a very significant decline I mean I was barely able to walk up and down these stairs” LaPlante said.

As a healthcare worker, LaPlante was able to get both Moderna COVID vaccine shots.

Now, COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers are gearing up for testing new versions to protect against worrisome mutations.

Updating the vaccine is less about having to start from square one and more about keeping the efficacy as close to where it is now.

To do that, tweaking the current vaccine might be necessary.

“We do have to react a bit, but we're well positioned to do that” Dr. Stephen Goldstein, a post-doctoral research associate with the University of Utah, said.

The first step is catching when a mutation happen, which is done in a process called sequencing.

Once scientists know a mutation's genetics, updating the vaccine can happen in a matter of weeks.

“We're able to see this happening essentially in real time and so we're able to test how it might impact vaccines and make a decision about when we might want to update” Goldstein said.

Which doesn't happen in viruses like measles where the same vaccine has been used for decades but does happen a lot in faster mutating viruses like influenza.

“We have a global genomic surveillance network for influenza, and we have that now for the virus that causes covid-19 as well” Goldstein said.

Based on the research he's seen, Goldstein said it's unlikely the current vaccines will become obsolete in a time frame that would set us back, adding “I don't think we're looking at a scenario where you've been vaccinated and in six-months you're a sitting duck again.”

Health experts believe updating a vaccine with mRNA will not take as long as the first wave of approvals.

The FDA is working on framework on how to approve modified COVID vaccines.

Pfizer sent 2News the following statement when asked about the potential of updating their vaccines:

It is important to have a vaccine technology that allows us to both provide boosting doses if needed and to address potential changes in the virus if an S protein variant of SARS-CoV-2 escapes BNT162b2-elicited protection from COVID-19. The mRNA platform offers the opportunity to do both, which is why Pfizer and BioNTech selected it for our COVID-19 vaccine. This flexibility includes the ability to alter the S-protein sequence in our RNA vaccine to respond to new variant strains of the virus and update the vaccine, which could be administered as a booster.

We are continuing to monitor the effectiveness of our COVID-19 vaccine as variants become known to us. Further, we are developing plans to test boosters of our current vaccine or a yet-to-be-determined modification of the S-protein sequence in our vaccine. If an updated vaccine is necessary to confer protection for COVID-19 against new variants, additional studies may be needed to evaluate the safety and immune response or effectiveness of any updated vaccine, and we are engaging in discussion with regulators about what may be needed.

Any updated vaccine or booster would be subject to regulatory approval or authorization.