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UMass Chan participating in clinical trials of Pfizer’s modified RNA influenza vaccine

UMass Chan Medical School researcher Jennifer Wang, MD, is leading local participation in a study testing a new flu vaccine based on modified RNA, or modRNA.

As flu season ramps up, UMass Chan Medical School researcher Jennifer Wang, MD, professor of medicine, is leading local participation in a study to test a new kind of flu vaccine based on modified RNA, or modRNA. The Phase III randomized, observer-blinded, clinical trial is designed to evaluate the efficacy, safety, tolerability and immunogenicity of Pfizer’s quadrivalent modRNA influenza vaccine compared with the standard inactivated influenza vaccine in healthy adults 18 years and older.

The modRNA vaccine uses the same platform as mRNA vaccines that were developed for COVID-19, Dr. Wang explained. “In the standard vaccine, the proteins are in the vaccine. In the modified RNA vaccine, the code—the RNA—is injected and then your body makes the protein, and that’s the antigen target.”

Standard quadrivalent flu vaccines have been available for years, but Wang said while they have made a big difference in preventing serious illness, they’ve only been around 40 percent effective in preventing infection most years. The rapid progress of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines showed there might be promising new approaches.

“Standard flu vaccines have made an impact, but we’ve known for years that we could do better, and this is an opportunity. I think this is a really big push forward,” she said.

The study at UMass Chan is enrolling participants now, aligned with the campaign to get employees at the Medical School and clinical system vaccinated. Some participants who enroll in the study will get the modRNA flu vaccine and the others will receive the standard vaccine.

“Our site is involved with the core of the study,” said Wang. “Whereas some sites will have additional blood draws to look at immunologic responses in different aspects.”

Some other sites will roll out their trials in future months to evaluate how the vaccines perform as flu season progresses.

Wang said that the possibility of a “twindemic” of influenza and COVID-19 is very real this year because people have had less exposure to flu over the past several years. By now, people’s immune systems have waned against influenza and if they get infected without vaccine protection, they could get very sick.

Influenza annually causes 140,000 to 710,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 to 52,000 deaths in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To learn more about participating in this study, call 508-856-2606 or email

Wang addressed questions about this year’s flu season and the new bivalent COVID-19 boosters in this recent edition of Voices of UMass Chan podcast.