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Novavax leads the way for protein-based Covid vaccines

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Novavax leads the way for protein-based Covid vaccines

Novavax, the first protein-based Covid-19 vaccine, has been approved by the WHO, the EU and India. It does not use genetic material. 

Vaccines that do not use genetic material but instead use proteins or small pieces of protein from the Covid virus Spike cover, bound to a well-trusted cold virus vector are arriving – and they have new clinical data plus a safer and more effective history behind them. The first protein-based vaccine was made in 1947.

A small Maryland Biotech company called Novavax has recently been given emergency authorisation for its Covid vaccine by both the European Commission and the World Health Organisation (1). Novavax has been manufacturing the vaccine for several months already through a company in India called Serum, which is the world’s largest vaccine maker by volume.

Highly effective ‘old-style’ vaccine

Results from a large North American trial (2) published in The New England Journal of Medicine last week, show Novavax’s vaccine to be 90.4% effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 overall, and 100% effective against moderate to severe disease. It had already been shown to be effective in the UK and South Africa. Two-shot vaccine effectiveness against any ‘variant of concern or interest’ was 92.6%. It does however seem that in order to get extreme effectiveness against Omicron, a third shot may be necessary.

The vaccine manufactured by Serum is called Covovax in India and South East Asia, and Nuvaxovid in Europe. 200 million doses have already been ordered by the EU; 1.1 billion by India.

The vaccine is an ‘adjuvanted, recombinant spike protein nanoparticle vaccine’, and uses the tried and trusted adenovirus vector route, typically with full pathogen proteins or parts of them. These ‘old-style vaccines have been previously used very successfully for human papillomavirus and hepatitis B virus. In the Novavax vaccine, spike protein pieces are made in insect cells, and combined with the company’s Matrix-M formula – an immune boosting compound of nanoparticles made from harmless cholesterol, phospholipids and soap-bark saponins.

Importantly, in this vaccine, the complete original and live pathogen is not involved, nor is any genetic material from it. Novavax can be stored unopened in a normal refrigerator for up to 9 months and requires no special conditions unlike fragile mRNA vaccines.

The Novavax spokesperson claimed it was the first protein-based vaccine on the market; there are 11 more in production with rival companies.

What is the difference in how these new vaccines work?

Let’s start with the mRNA vaccines – Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are genetic vaccines; the first two store the viral instructions in single-stranded RNA, which is quite fragile; the Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses double-stranded DNA, combined with an Adenovirus vector (3). The J&J vaccine adenovirus pushes the DNA (which, they claim, cannot be copied into more DNA) into the host’s nucleus from which mRNA is made, which makes the spike protein. The vaccinated cells then break up the proteins made into fragments, and both the proteins and the fragments prompt the antibodies.

The Oxford University Vaccine (AstraZeneca) uses an adenovirus vector from Chimpanzees. It is also a genetic vaccine. The genes for the spike protein are put into the vector. Inside the body the vaccine enters cells and the protein production system produces copies of the spike protein and T-cells are activated to attack. Antibodies are also produced, but Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert is primarily a T-cell vaccinologist. It is claimed that it protects significantly against severe disease from any variant.

All of the above have less side effects when aspiration is used during the vaccination process. This protects the recipient from having the vaccine directly into the blood supply, which can lead to DNA and mRNA attacks on the heart wall (4).

The Novavax vaccine is a protein-based vaccine, not a genetic vaccine. Sometimes the whole protein is used; sometimes bits of it. Many countries already have protein-vaccine factilities, so these ‘old-style vaccines can go global quickly.

The reason these vaccines are later to the fray is that, although the protein vector combination is well understood and reasonably straightforward, there are a lot of steps in the vaccine design process for each new virus.

Other companies such as Sanofi and GSK are working on Covid protein vaccines. Protein-vaccines have an excellent record of safety and effectiveness but, again, aspiration is recommended.

Protein-vaccines are the best

Peter Hotez, vaccine scientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, and Nikolai Petrovsky of Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia are both clear that protein-based vaccines are the best and that the only reason mRNA vaccines were launched first was that the NIH and others had them ‘sitting around’. Governments jumped on them because politicians needed something fast.

The two virologists add that, one downside maybe that T-cell production may not be so great as, say, for the Oxford University vaccine, but it is definitely strong enough to produce a good antibody response.

We understand that Novavax will be available in the UK from April 2022.

Go to: My Vaccine Dilemma – resolved



  1. Science; 22 December 2021; Novavax’s long-awaited Covid-19 vaccine authorisation offer a real alternative to mRNA: https://www.science.org/content/article/novavax-s-long-awaited-covid-19-vaccine-authorizations-offer-alternative-mrna

  2. Efficacy and Safety of NVX-Cov2373 in adults in the USA and Mexico – Dec 15 2021; DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa2116185

  3. Protein-based vaccines could overshadow rivals – Chemistry World; https://www.chemistryworld.com/news/protein-based-covid-19-vaccines-could-overshadow-rivals/4012450.article

4. Myopericarditis and Coagulation from vaccines – are we vaccinating correctly? https://chriswoollamshealthwatch.com/your-illness/general-health/myopericarditis-and-coagulation-from-vaccines-are-we-vaccinating-correctly/