In-Depth: Study finds mRNA vaccines may offer best protection against COVID-19

La Jolla researchers compare 4 vaccines
Posted at 5:58 AM, Mar 31, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-31 13:05:44-04

LA JOLLA, Calif. (KGTV) - A new study from the La Jolla Institute of Immunology is the first to compare four COVID-19 vaccines head-to-head, looking at the immune response each provides.

The study, which was published Monday as a non-peer-reviewed preprint on BioRxIV, looks at Moderna, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Novavax.

While other studies have compared these vaccines before, researchers at the Institute say their work is the first to do so by getting all of the samples from the same area and analyzing them all in the same lab, using the same techniques.

"It's really crucial to have a single study where we can compare different vaccine platforms side by side in the same lab with the same re-agents," says Dr. Alessandro Sette, one of the lead authors of the study.

More than 100 vaccinated people took part in the study and were compensated for their time. They gave several blood samples over six months. Researchers analyzed the blood to study 14 different types of immune responses.

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"Our emphasis was not purely to do scorecards and declare a winner versus a loser," he says. "But really, to understand that different vaccine may have different ways that stimulate an immune response."

The four vaccines represent three different vaccine platforms. Moderna and Pfizer are both mRNA-based vaccines. Johnson & Johnson is a viral vector-based vaccine. Novavax is a protein-based vaccine. The study showed how each platform works differently.

According to the paper, the mRNA vaccines were, "consistently the most immunogenic." They created a better response of neutralizing antibodies, which help prevent infection. Researchers found COVID-19 antibodies in 100% of the trial participants who got Moderna and Pfizer shots, compared with just 86% of the people who got Johnson & Johnson.

But they also found antibody levels had a "substantial decline" over time. By the second blood draw post-vaccination, only 64% of people with Johnson & Johnson had antibodies, compared with 84% for Moderna and 76% for Pfizer.

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Researchers also compared the body's memory immune response by looking at B-Cells and T-Cells. Those cells help the immune system remember a disease and fight it after an infection. They're crucial in avoiding severe outcomes like hospitalizations or deaths.

For memory cells, the study found the mRNA and protein-based vaccines all generated higher levels than the viral-vector vaccine. But, all four vaccines gave robust responses that remained stable over time, and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine had B-Cell counts increase over 6 months.

"If one can prevent infection altogether, that's great," says Dr. Sette. "But, certainly, to prevent (severe) disease is a totally acceptable goal."

"Overall, honestly, all four of them did well," adds Dr. Shane Crotty. "But, if you had to rank them, the RNA looked the best."

That information will help inform future studies about vaccine boosters, variants, and breakthrough infections. It can also show which type of vaccine might work the best against future novel viruses.

"It's really comforting as scientists that to have a data set that you can look at and just sort of look straight across," says Dr. Crotty. "That gives us a really solid foundation, finally, for comparing these vaccines, head-to-head."

ABC 10News Reporter Jared Aarons was one of the participants in the study.