A New Coronavirus Vaccine Wants to Take on More Variants Than Moderna and Pfizer

A New Coronavirus Vaccine Wants to Take on More Variants Than Moderna and Pfizer

A Culver City-based biotech company is testing COVID vaccinations it hopes will be effective against more contagious variants that have emerged from South Africa, California, Brazil and the U.K.

ImmunityBio — which is slated to merge with El Segundo-based therapeutics company NantKwest on Tuesday — announced that vaccine trial participants in the U.S. and South Africa have received their first dose of the vaccine.

The company is one of several locally that are developing new vaccinations, and comes as the Biden administration promises there will be enough doses to vaccinate Americans by May.

ImmunityBio's vaccine candidate known as hAd5 can be administered via injection or orally. It is still in early testing and has not yet undergone the Food and Drug Administration approval process The drug targets two viral proteins — the spike (S) protein, which allows the virus to enter humans' cells, and the nucleocapsid (N) protein. By targeting both, ImmunityBio and NantKwest hope the vaccine will be more effective for long-term immunity.

"Current COVID-19 vaccines only target the S protein, the primary source of virus mutations," said Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, executive chairman of ImmunityBio and NantKwest in an announcement. "These mutations may render existing vaccines less effective, so we have designed our vaccine differently and are driving T cells to both S and N."

Most coronavirus vaccines target the spike protein, and Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have become less effective due to a mutation in this variant. But the nucleocapsid protein "looks" more similar to the nucleocapsid protein in other strains of the coronavirus, meaning vaccines targeting it might be able to go up against more variants.


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Ben Bergman

Ben Bergman is the newsroom's senior finance reporter. Previously he was a senior business reporter and host at KPCC, a senior producer at Gimlet Media, a producer at NPR's Morning Edition, and produced two investigative documentaries for KCET. He has been a frequent on-air contributor to business coverage on NPR and Marketplace and has written for The New York Times and Columbia Journalism Review. Ben was a 2017-2018 Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Economic and Business Journalism at Columbia Business School. In his free time, he enjoys skiing, playing poker, and cheering on The Seattle Seahawks.