“They would have to move forward very cautiously,” said Heaton. One risk of vaccinating large numbers of people before a vaccine has been tested thoroughly is “immune enhancement,” in which the vaccine combines with viral components to cause an allergic reaction or a more severe infection.
Immune enhancement has occurred with past vaccines, including other experimental coronavirus vaccines when tested in animals. However, Moderna officials and the NIH scientists they work with say they are confident their vaccine will not prompt this side effect.
Moderna created its gene-based vaccine in the laboratory using synthetic chemistry methods that allow it to move extremely fast. However, its technology has not been tested in any epidemic, and there is currently no licensed coronavirus vaccine in the world. A Chinese company using a different technique has also started testing a vaccine, and a few of some 20-35 other vaccine candidates are close on Moderna’s heels in the United States and Europe.
At an online meeting hosted by the FDA and the European Medicine Agency last week to discuss joint approaches to coronavirus vaccine, regulators committed to keeping a sharp eye out for immune enhancement, said Peter Marks, FDA’s top regulator for vaccines, in a release.
The company and FDA declined to comment further on Bancel’s statement. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is working with Moderna on its vaccine, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.