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Home » What Is Novavax, and Is It Better Than the Other COVID Vaccines?

What Is Novavax, and Is It Better Than the Other COVID Vaccines?

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A healthcare worker prepares a dose of Nuvaxovid vaccine from Novavax.
Photo: JEROEN JUMELET (Getty Images)

The FDA just authorized a COVID vaccine called Novavax, and the government has secured 3.2 million doses. That gives us a fourth option for getting vaccinated against COVID. So what is it, how effective is it, and who should consider getting it?

Like the Pfizer vaccine, the Novavax vaccine is given in two doses, three weeks apart. It’s authorized for people aged 18 and over, and the company says they’re working on a booster and a vaccine for kids. The FDA has given Novavax an emergency use authorization (EUA), the same designation that the other COVID vaccines got when they were first made available. The next step is for the CDC to decide whether to recommend this vaccine. After that green light, expected next week, the vaccine should be generally available.

How is Novavax different from the other COVID vaccines?

The biggest difference is the way the vaccine works. So far, we have two mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna), and one DNA vaccine (Johnson & Johnson). The Novavax vaccine takes a different approach: it’s based on protein.

All the vaccines trigger our immune system to create antibodies against the coronavirus’s spike protein. The mRNA vaccines deliver instructions (in RNA form) for our body to build the protein, at which point our immune system recognizes that protein as an invader and mounts the desired immune response. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine delivers the instructions in DNA form, packaged inside an inactivated cold virus.

By contrast, Novavax delivers the spike protein itself, alongside an adjuvant made from the soapbark tree. (The adjuvant’s job is to enhance the immune response; many non-COVID vaccines also contain some type of adjuvant.) This vaccine was slower to make because the company needs to actually produce all those spike proteins, a process that involves insect cells (no insect parts remain in the vaccine). A similar process is used to make some flu vaccines.

Is there a reason I would want this instead of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine?

Well…in the U.S., not really. If you’ve held off getting a COVID vaccine because you don’t trust the mRNA technology (which, it should be obvious by now, is quite safe), this is a type of vaccine that’s made via a process similar to other, more traditional vaccines. And if you’re allergic to an ingredient in the other vaccines, this one may be a good option, since it contains different ingredients.

The Novavax vaccine’s safety and efficacy don’t seem to be notably different from the other COVID vaccines. The common side effects are similar (fatigue, sore arm) as is the potential for adverse reactions (myocarditis, anaphylaxis if you’re allergic to an ingredient); those reactions are still very rare.

In other parts of the world where mRNA vaccines are limited in supply, or where ultra-cold storage is harder to achieve, Novavax is a good option to have. It can be stored at refrigerator temperatures.

The bottom line is, this is just another vaccine. If you have the option to get it, it’s probably a fine choice. But at this point, most people who want a COVID vaccine have gotten one, so it’s kind of a moot point. When it comes time for updated boosters, though, it will be interesting to see whether Novavax’s booster outperforms the others. But those shots aren’t available yet, and the data is still incomplete.

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