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URMC and RRH participate in clinical trials for modified Pfizer vaccine

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Max Schulte/WXXI News
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The University of Rochester Medical Center and Rochester Regional Health are once again involved in national COVID-19 research.

The two healthcare institutions are running tests on a vaccine that could help fight against the so-called South African variant.

According to health officials, the new vaccine, produced by Pfizer and BioNTech, is “a slight twist” on the companies’ existing COVID-19 vaccine.

URMC’s Dr. Edward Walsh said the original vaccine is not as effective when faced with the double mutation present in the South African strain.

“This variant combined two mutations, the UK mutation known as 501, but also a mutation known as 484,” said Walsh, “So breakthrough infections will occur at a higher rate.”

Walsh and his co-leader, Dr. Ann Falsey, have joined two phase 3 clinical trials that will test the new vaccine as a booster and as a stand-alone vaccine. 

The stand-alone study has enrolled 300 unvaccinated people across the U.S. with 45 of them being from the Rochester area. Seven local residents have also taken the booster. 

Participants will report side effects following each shot as well as any COVID-19 symptom they experience over the course of 18 months. 

Blood samples will also be collected to determine how strong and long-lasting participants’ immune responses are. 

Falsey said in the meantime, vaccine hesitancy is giving the coronavirus more opportunities to mutate.

“The more the virus is prevalent and replicating even in populations that are young and healthy it gives that virus more opportunities to turn into some new strain that is going to be a problem,” said Falsey.

She said while she’s not terribly optimistic about getting rid of COVID-19 forever, the community has to do its part to “squelch it down.”

Falsey said results of the trials may show that this new vaccine may not even be needed.

She said perhaps just getting a boost of the original vaccine may prove to be enough to produce the necessary amount of antibodies needed to fight the variant, but researchers won't have an answer until late summer or early fall.