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What is Novavax and what do moths have to do with producing the non-mRNA vaccine?

What is Novavax and what do moths have to do with producing the non-mRNA vaccine?

A woman holds a small bottle labelled with a "Coronavirus COVID-19 Vaccine" sticker and a medical syringe in front of displayed Novavax. (File Photo: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic)

SINGAPORE: Singapore could be getting Novavax vaccines - a non-mRNA vaccine which has demonstrated high efficacy against the COVID-19 virus - before the end of the year.

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said on Thursday (Jun 24) that Singapore authorities had signed an advance purchase agreement with Novavax in January this year.

He said that the vaccine is still undergoing Phase 3 clinical trials, and Singapore is awaiting Novavax's application for regulatory approval while working closely with them.

Novavax has said that it is on track to file for emergency authorisation in the US and elsewhere in the third quarter of 2021.

"But we hope the vaccine supplies can arrive before the end of this year for those who want to take something that is non-mRNA," said Mr Ong at a COVID-19 multi-ministry task force press conference where he announced that the country will be ramping up its vaccination programme.

READ: Singapore to accelerate COVID-19 vaccination programme, increasing daily doses by 70%

What is the Novavax vaccine and how is it different from other vaccines being used now? Here's what we know so far:

PROTEIN-BASED VACCINE

Novavax calls its approach recombinant nanoparticle vaccine technology, it has also been called a protein sub-unit vaccine.

The technology has been in use for two decades to make vaccines, including for whooping cough and shingles.

According to a CNN report, Novavax clones a modified version of the gene for the COVID-19 virus spike protein into a baculovirus that infects insects.

Scientists then infect moth cells with that virus, spurring them to produce the coronavirus spike protein. These virus-like nanoparticles are harvested to make the vaccine.

Sinovac uses the whole, deactivated virus, while vector vaccines, like AstraZeneca, use an adenovirus to carry genetic instructions for the human body to make the spike protein. mRNA vaccines like Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna use pieces of genetic material called messenger RNA to instruct cells to make a piece of the coronavirus spike protein.

Nita Patel, director of antibody discovery and vaccine development at Novavax, lifts a vial containing the company's experimental COVID-19 vaccine. (Photo: AFP)

All of them have the same purpose - to stimulate the body to produce an immune response to the virus without actually causing illness. 

The main difference between Novavax and the mRNA or vector vaccines is that it is made with lab-grown copies of the COVID-19 spike protein, whereas vector and mRNA vaccines include genetic instructions for the body to make its own spike protein.

Novavax requires two doses given 21 days apart and the vaccine is stable at 2 to 8 deg Celsius, which are standard refrigerator temperatures. This means that it will be easier to store and transport for low and middle-income countries.

HIGH EFFICACY

The Novavax jab is about 90 per cent effective against COVID-19 across a variety of variants of the virus.

In Phase 3 trials in the UK earlier this year, it was 89.3 per cent effective at preventing COVID-19 and around 86 per cent effective at protecting against the Alpha variant from the UK. 

It was 95.6 per cent effective against the original COVID-19 strain.

READ: Novavax COVID-19 vaccine more than 90% effective in US trial
READ: UK begins 'booster' shot trial of 7 different COVID-19 vaccines

In a late-stage study in the United States and Mexico, it was more than 93 per cent effective against the predominant virus variants of concern.

It has shown far less efficacy against the Beta variant at about 55 per cent among HIV-negative people in a trial in South Africa. 

However, it is 100 per cent effective at preventing moderate and severe disease, similar to other approved vaccines.

FEWER SIDE EFFECTS

Novavax has said that the vaccine was generally well-tolerated among participants. 

Side effects included headache, fatigue and muscle pain and were generally mild. A small number of participants experienced side effects described as severe.

Data showed that about 40 per cent of people who received Novavax reported fatigue after the second dose, as compared with 65 per cent for Moderna and more than 55 per cent for Pfizer, the Atlantic said.

VACCINE PRODUCTION

According to news reports, the vaccine has taken longer to complete trials and ramp up production because the US company has faced operational issues.

It is small compared to the pharmaceutical giants that have had their vaccines approved so far.

However, it has now got the funding and manufacturing partners to ramp up production.

South Korea's SK Bioscience was reported to begin manufacturing Novavax COVID-19 vaccines in June and the Serum Institute of India is also supposed to make millions of doses of the Novavax shot, known there as Covovax, for the WHO-backed COVAX scheme.

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Source: CNA/hm(rw)

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