By Haruna Gimba
A World Health Organization (WHO) expert panel issued its first guidance on the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, saying that it should ideally be given to people in two separate doses, 28 days apart.
In exceptional circumstances this period could be extended to 42 days, said WHO Special Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE), amid supply shortages affecting many countries.
The development follows SAGE’s recommendations on January 5 on how the similar Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine should be used, as deaths from the new coronavirus topped 2.1 million globally.
Both are so-called mRNA vaccines which trigger an immune response by teaching the body to make special proteins, as opposed to including any live or inactive weakened virus.
The SAGE on immunization has issued Interim recommendations for use of the Moderna mRNA-1273 vaccine against #COVID19 in people aged 18 years and older.
“Based on current evidence, SAGE recommends the administration of two doses – 100 micrograms, 0.5 millilitre each – with an interval of 28 days between doses.
“We also recommends at present that, if judged necessary, due to exceptional circumstances of COVID-19 disease burden in a country, the interval between doses may be extended to 42 days,” SAGE Chair, Dr Alejandro Cravioto said.
At a virtual press conference, the SAGE chief noted that this was the longest interval provided in clinical trials to date, adding that it will be up to countries to decide how to act on these recommendations.
“It’s because of the severity of the disease, which is compromising our health systems, causing untold numbers of deaths, severe cases, long-term complications – that’s the problem here,” said Dr Kate O’Brien, Director, Department of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals at WHO.
“So in order to take the limited supply that we have, and deploy that where it’s going to make the most difference to a country, we really have to be committed to prioritisation based on epidemiology, based on what the science says about how we’re going to get out of this.”
Pregnancy ‘risk’ considered
Responding to questions over the potential dangers of the vaccine to pregnant women – particularly those who were health workers and who therefore ran a higher risk of becoming infected, along with others suffering from underlying illnesses – the SAGE panel noted in a statement that “WHO recommends not to use (Moderna) mRNA-1273 vaccine in pregnancy, unless the benefit of vaccinating a pregnant woman outweighs the potential vaccine risks.”
Nevertheless, some 7,000 pregnant women have already had the Moderna mRNA-1273 vaccine and this data will be reviewed as soon as possible, said Dr. Joachim Hoùmbach, Executive Secretary of SAGE.
Citing further data sets, Dr Hoùmbach also noted that of four million Moderna vaccines delivered, only 10 cases of adverse reaction to it – known as anaphylaxis – had been recorded to date.
WHO’s Dr O’Brien also underlined the UN agency’s belief that there was “no reason” to think that the vaccine caused complications in pregnant women.
She also dismissed misplaced fears over the new pharmaceutical technique that relies on a mRNA molecule to produce the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, insisting that there was “no chance” of it altering human genetic code, as many believed erroneously.
Advice for breastfeeding
SAGE also acknowledged a lack of data on the safety of the vaccine among lactating women but added that as it considered it unlikely to pose a risk, health workers who were breastfeeding should be offered vaccination.
Addressing concerns that many countries are unable to afford vaccines for key workers and other vulnerable individuals, Dr. O’Brien reiterated the WHO’s appeal for equitable access to COVID-19 immunisation – with health workers and other key workers first – as the only way to overcome the pandemic.
“The reason that we’re in the situation we’re in, around economic and social implosions, is because of the severity of the illness and it’s the reason countries should be looking carefully at what would be most impactful in this first early distribution of this vaccine,” she said.