Small study finds Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine may work equally well in older people as it does in younger adults

Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine appears to create as strong an immune response in older people as it does in younger adults. That’s a positive sign as many vaccines don’t work as well in the elderly.

A small study published Tuesday in the New England Journal of Medicine found the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine elicited an immune system response almost as strong in people over 56 as in adults between the ages of 18 and 55.

“This is very promising but it’s also somewhat surprising,” said David Dowling, an immunologist and professor at Harvard Medical School, who studies vaccines.

Older people are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People 50 to 64 years old are four times more likely to be hospitalized and 30 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than people between the ages of 18 and 29. Those aged 65 to 74 are five times more likely to be hospitalized and 90 times more likely to die. The older the person, the higher the risk. 

The Moderna study was conducted by researchers at Emory University in Atlanta and included two groups of 20 people each, one made up of people aged 56 to 70 and one of people 71 and over. Participants were enrolled in Atlanta, Seattle and Bethesda, Maryland. The findings were compared to findings previously reported among vaccine recipients between 18 and 55. 

“The immune responses were very comparable to that of the young adults,” said Dr. Evan Anderson, a professor of infectious disease at Emory University Medical School and lead author on the paper. 

Moderna’s mRNA-1273 experimental vaccine is now in Phase 3 clinical trials in the United States. It is considered a front runner among the four candidate vaccines currently in end-stage trials. There is no data available yet on how well it protects people from getting COVID-19.

Having a vaccine that works well for older people could make a big difference in COVID-19 vaccine distribution. There have been fears any vaccine approved might not work as well in the elderly. 

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It’s long been known a person’s immune system weakens as they get older.

“With increasing age, our immune responses generally decline and a number of different vaccines tend to not work as well as we get older. That’s why we have the high dose influenza vaccine for people 65 and above,” Anderson said. “The fact that that 100 microgram dose (of Moderna’s COVID vaccine) seemed to be sufficient to generate a similar immune response in older people is a very pleasant finding.” 

If a higher dosage were to be required for COVID-19, as it is for some influenza vaccines, fewer doses would be available.

There also have been concerns that some vaccines might not work at all for seniors, limiting their options or requiring they wait until newer vaccines become available. Another approach, so-called “ring immunization” where the at-risk person doesn’t get vaccinated but everyone around them does, would require more vaccine, too. 

The findings don’t show whether the experimental vaccine will give people immunity to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but are “heartening,” said Anderson. 

The study only included 40 people and almost all were white, so the researchers acknowledged a broader study population was needed to confirm the results. COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted communities of color. 

Raymond Grosswirth, a participant in a Phase 3 clinical trial for a COVID-19 vaccine.

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