The Department of Defense on Monday announced it is now offering Novavax’s COVID-19 vaccine to service members a little over a month after U.S. health regulators approved the shot for adults aged 18 years and up.
The Food and Drug Administration updated the emergency use authorization to include individuals aged 12 and older. Novavax is the third vaccine to be approved for individuals 12 and up after the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna jabs; the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says should “only be considered in some cases,” is authorized for those aged 18 and older.
The DOD now offers all four vaccines to its service members, though it noted that Novavax is currently not approved to be used as a booster dose – and the vast majority of service members have already received their original COVID-19 vaccine regimen.
"We now have a range of COVID-19 vaccines available at our military medical treatment facilities, and they all provide strong protection against hospitalization, severe illness and death," Dr. Michael Malanoski, deputy director of the Defense Health Agency, wrote in a statement.
Novavax is a more traditional type of shot than the three other COVID-19 vaccines available for use in the U.S.
All of the vaccines used in the U.S. train the body to fight the coronavirus by recognizing its outer coating, the spike protein – and the first three options essentially turn people’s cells into a temporary vaccine factory. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines deliver genetic instructions for the body to make copies of the spike protein. The lesser-used Johnson & Johnson option uses a cold virus to deliver those instructions.
In contrast, the Novavax vaccine injects copies of the spike protein that are grown in a lab and packaged into nanoparticles that, to the immune system, resemble a virus. Another difference: An ingredient called an adjuvant, which is made from the bark of a South American tree, is added to help rev up that immune response.
Protein vaccines have been used for years to prevent other diseases including hepatitis B and shingles.
"Although all [COVID-19] vaccines teach our immune system to recognize the spike protein on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, Novavax is unique compared to other available COVID-19 vaccines in that it is a protein subunit vaccine," Air Force Col. Tonya Rans, chief of the Immunization Healthcare Division at the Defense Health Agency, wrote in a statement, noting that "protein subunit vaccines are a traditional platform of vaccines and have been used for decades to prevent disease.”
Large studies in the U.S., Mexico and Britain found two doses of the Novavax vaccine were safe and about 90% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19. When the delta variant emerged last summer, Novavax reported a booster dose revved up virus-fighting antibodies that could tackle that mutant.
Typical vaccine reactions were mild, including arm pain and fatigue, but regulators did warn about the possibility of a rare risk, heart inflammation, that also has been seen with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, mostly in teen boys or young men.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.