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Wash U physicians are studying variant-specific COVID vaccines

Vaccinations in Missouri are slightly increasing as COVID-19 hotspots continue to grow.
Stephen Zenner
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A team of Washington University medical researchers is conducting a clinical trial of a Moderna vaccine that targets the highly transmissible omicron variant.

A team of Washington University physicians is helping conduct a nationwide Moderna clinical trial to study the safety and effectiveness of an omicron-specific vaccine for COVID-19.

The highly transmissible variant emerged in November and caused a surge of cases and hospitalizations in the St. Louis region and around the country.

Dr. Rachel Presti, who specializes in infectious diseases and leads the COVID-19 clinical trial team in St. Louis, said the work involves the latest branch of an ongoing study to test whether tailored shots may better reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

Presti said the current vaccine still works well at preventing hospitalization and death, but with omicron now making up nearly all COVID-19 cases around the country, she said the team wants to test whether a new vaccine could reduce infections.

“The question really is, if you had a vaccine that’s more targeted to omicron, would it work better? And we don't really know,” she said. “It may be that the new virus is just so infectious that you can’t get an immune response that’s going to prevent infection.”

Similar to the flu, the coronavirus is constantly mutating, and Presti said it may be better to get a more targeted shot at certain times of the year.

“If [the coronavirus] keeps putting people in the hospital, then we need a vaccine that protects them from the current virus,” she said. “We might do something like the flu vaccine where we get it right before the cold and flu season shows up.”

Presti said physicians are still determining what the best solution will be moving forward.

The team is about three weeks into its research and is still seeking participants who have received a Moderna vaccine more than six months ago and have not received a booster.

Follow Corinne on Twitter: @corinnesusan

Corinne is the economic development reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.