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On COVID-19 vaccine and its bivalent vaccine with Professor Matthew Nugent

(Photo courtesy of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health site) “Covid boosters have been a thing for a year now. COVID-19 bivalent boosters have been approved this fall.”

Kyra Barry
Connector Editor

Around the start of the academic school year, 2022, the FDA approved a new vaccine to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, a bivalent booster that boosted immunity for the initial disease which became a global pandemic, and provided immunity against its mutant variant, Omicron. This is the first vaccine since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic approved by the FDA that provides immunity against one of COVID-19’s variants. Prior to this, the FDA had approved non-bivalent vaccines for children 5 and under, increasing the portion of the population that can get immunities to the original COVID-19.

Matthew Nugent, a professor of biology and associate dean for research, innovation and partnerships at the Kennedy College of Sciences, previously spoke in a press release from the University of Massachusetts Lowell about the topic of vaccines versus variants back in 2021, when there was yet to be a COVID vaccine that covered any variant aside from the original in the United States. At the time, the Delta mutation had been the variant sweeping the country. He answered some questions about this vaccine and the disease that has been affecting humanity since 2019.

There’s a lot of interesting science that goes into vaccines, especially the newest COVID-19 vaccine. According to Nugent, the vaccines work via introducing RNA to cells that give cells the ability to make spike proteins that replicate the viruses the vaccines are targeting. The immune system learns from these spike proteins to recognize the foreign virus, and prime antibodies to attack the virus.

Unfortunately, there was a rise in COVID-19 cases as the Omicron variant mutated, and research into developing more vaccines as the original did not target the new variant. Nugent said, “Now the problem with Omicron is the virus itself underwent a number of mutations, so that the spike protein on the Omicron is different than the original spike protein. So having been vaccinated to the original spike protein, the vaccine wasn’t as effective against the Omicron.”

The COVID-19 vaccine was still extremely effective against the original variant, which is still around. It reduces the severity of symptoms and hospitalization cases, even with the Omicron variant. The bivalent version covers both the original and the Omicron variation. And the technology developed with vaccines will make it easier to more quickly develop vaccines against diseases, hopefully curbing the death count from any future pandemic.

“It is very easy to make a quick modification of that RNA sequence to make it the sequence of the Omicron spike protein, so what we have now is this balance, which is the original sequence as well as the sequence of the Omicron in the same in the same vaccine capsules. These are tiny little nanoparticles of fat that have the RNA inside and everything else chemically is the same.” Nugent said to explain how this research could facilitate expediated vaccination development. “The process is the same, so it’s much easier for FDA to say, ‘well, we already know this is safe.’ This small change in in sequence in the RNA is not changing the chemical entity that we’re injecting into people, but it is subtly changing the protein that your body will express as a spike protein so that you’ll now raise antibodies to Omicron Spike protein. That was the promise of this vaccine technology, as it doesn’t require a multi-year lead up to design and build as this virus continues to change, which it will.”

Nugent and his family are all vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19, “My children, my wife, my mother, my brother, sister, everyone, I advised them all to get this benefit. [With] this booster, I think, the negative effects are extremely rare other than the really common ones, which is that people might feel a little sick for a day. And I think that’s certainly a small price to pay to prevent two things; prevent getting sick with the virus and prevent getting sick with the virus that you could then spread to others who might get really, really sick and may even die. I’m definitely on the pro-vaccine side and I think this technology is wonderful in that it allows for this sort of rapid sort of adjustment in vaccine type and vaccine nature so that you can target new strains as they show up.”

Nugent emphasized how vaccines may work for an individual, in order to be successful a lot of people need to get them. “[Vaccines] are really designed to work on populations, and so if one out of 100 people get the vaccine, that’s not going to drop the virus titer in the society. But if enough people get this vaccine, we can get ahead of this virus and the virus won’t have places to go. And that’s the that’s the goal of all vaccines.”

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