There is a substantial gap in the amount of antibodies that mRNA and inactivated vaccines can generate against the virus that causes Covid-19, according to a Hong Kong study, in the latest finding on what may have contributed to the varied outcomes following mass vaccination using different types of shots.
The research, published in The Lancet on Thursday, found that antibody levels among Hong Kong health workers who have been fully vaccinated with BioNTech SE’s mRNA shot are about 10 times higher than those observed in the recipients of the inactivated vaccine from Sinovac Biotech Ltd.
While disease-fighting antibodies don’t account for the full picture when it comes to measuring the ability to generate immunity and the effectiveness of Covid vaccines, “the difference in concentrations of neutralizing antibodies identified in our study could translate into substantial differences in vaccine effectiveness,” the researchers said.
The finding adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting the superiority of mRNA vaccines in providing potent and comprehensive protection against Sars-CoV-2 and its variants, compared to vaccines developed by more traditional methods such as inactivated shots.
Countries from Israel to the U.S that have relied mostly on mRNA vaccines from Pfizer Inc. and its German partner BioNTech, as well as Moderna Inc., have seen a marked reduction in infections. Those using mostly inactivated shots from China’s Sinovac and Sinopharm haven’t experienced as much of a dent in case numbers, though the use of both kinds has significantly prevented more severe Covid and fatalities.
The lower effectiveness of inactivated vaccines has prompted countries from Thailand to the United Arab Emirates to offer already fully vaccinated people another booster shot as the more infectious delta variant fuels a resurgence in infections.
The Hong Kong study also suggested that future research could look into how booster shots can shore up antibody levels and protection among people vaccinated with inactivated shots.
mRNA vaccine access carves up world into haves and have-nots
The latest surge in Covid-19 cases is widening one of the biggest inequities of the pandemic era: The gap between nations that have messenger RNA vaccines and those that don’t.
The cutting-edge technology, which made its debut during the pandemic, has proven more effective than any other in staving off infections and serious illness from the coronavirus.
Yet just a handful of facilities in the U.S. and Western Europe account for almost all of the world’s mRNA vaccine supply — leaving many countries in a desperate race to catch up.
From South Korea to Indonesia and South Africa, governments are seeking to set up mRNA production and develop other collaborations in the space, but they’re also realizing it could take them years to master the new science, leaving their countries reliant on less potent vaccines that potentially expose them to repeated waves of Covid and delay their economies from re-opening.
In South Africa, where Covid shots are in such short supply they’ve only distributed enough to cover about 5% of the population, the government last month teamed up with the World Health Organization and local drug manufacturers on an ambitious plan to turn the country into a hub for the first Made-in-Africa mRNA vaccines.
One critical element was missing from the plan: A company that knows how to make mRNA vaccines.
For the fastest access, the South African hub would need one of the three developers already producing mRNA Covid shots to transfer their knowhow, but so far Cambridge, Mass.-based Moderna Inc. hasn’t committed, and neither has New York-headquartered Pfizer Inc. or its German partner BioNTech SE.
“These are businesses, we know that it’s not very easy for them to make decisions,” Bartholomew Dicky Akanmori, the WHO’s regional advisor on vaccine regulation, quality and safety for Africa, said in an interview. “They are reluctant.”
Without that kind of access, scientists in places like South Africa would need to perfect the tricky process of making an mRNA vaccine, which involves steps like the production of lipid nanoparticles, the vehicles used in an mRNA shot to deliver genetic code that helps trigger the body’s immune response.
They’d then have to then develop, test and mass-produce the vaccines, which could potentially take years and require resources that many nations, especially poorer ones, don’t have access to.
With mRNA technology set to be used in everything from shots to combat other viruses to cancer drugs, that lack of infrastructure could put them on the pharmaceutical back-foot for years.