Covid vaccine maker Moderna warned today that it will take months to develop an Omicron-specific booster jab despite President Joe Biden telling Americans they may need another shot to protect them from the variant.
Stephane Bancel, chief executive at the Massachusetts-based vaccine manufacturer, said he expects the highly-evolved Covid variant to cause a ‘material drop’ in the effectiveness of existing vaccines, warning that the result was ‘not going to be good’.
He warned that it will take until summer 2022 for Moderna to develop a new vaccine and scale up manufacturing to vaccinate entire populations.
Scientists say it will take two weeks to truly work out how effective jabs are against Omicron, which has twice as many mutations on its spike protein as Delta.
The strain is expected to make current vaccines significantly weaker at preventing infections, but it’s less clear how it will impact hospitalizations and deaths.
Biden said at a White House press conference Monday: ‘We do not yet believe that additional measures will be needed.
‘But so that we are prepared if needed, my team is already working with officials at Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson to develop contingency plans for vaccines or boosters if needed.’
The Botswana variant has around 50 mutations and more than 30 of them are on the spike protein. The current crop of vaccines trigger the body to recognise the version of the spike protein from older versions of the virus. But the mutations may make the spike protein look so different that the body’s immune system struggles to recognise it and fight it off. And three of the spike mutations (H665Y, N679K, P681H) help it enter the body’s cells more easily. Meanwhile, it is missing a membrane protein (NSP6) which was seen in earlier iterations of the virus, which experts think could make it more infectious. And it has two mutations (R203K and G204R) that have been present in all variants of concern so far and have been linked with infectiousness
Stephane Bancel (pictured on CNBC earlier this year), chief executive at Massachusetts-based vaccine manufacturer, said he expects the highly-evolved Covid variant to cause a ‘material drop’ in the effectiveness of existing vaccines
President Joe Biden (pictured during his White House press conference Monday) said his administration had already begun working with pharmaceutical companies to lay the groundwork in case a new generation of vaccines was needed to cope with the emerging Omicron variant of COVID-19
Moderna alongside other vaccine manufacturers is working on a tweaked version of their jab to fight the Omicron variant.
But scientists say it could take 100 days before it is available.
Mr Bancel told the Financial Times that his company could deliver between two to three billion doses in 2022, but added it would be dangerous to shift all production to an Omicron-specific shot while other variants of the virus remained in circulation.
He also told CNBC’s Squawk Box that his company is researching the variant and trying to determine how much of a risk it poses to Americans.
He fears that the antibodies Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine provides to fight against the virus could be eight times lower against the new strain.
‘There are two key things that we don’t know yet and will find out in [coming] weeks],’ Bancel said.
‘One is vaccine efficacy. What is the impact of this new variant on the vaccine efficacy, and we should know that in around two weeks.
‘We believe this [variant] is highly infectious… it seems to be much more infectious than Delta,’ Bancel said.
He said it still take anywhere from two to six weeks for his company to really know how the vaccine interacts with the vaccines, though.
Bancel’s warning came as G7 health ministers held emergency talks on the new variant, which is spreading around the world and prompting nations to close their borders once again or impose fresh travel restrictions.
Bancel said researchers were concerned because 32 of 50 mutations found in the Omicron variant were on the spike protein, a part of the virus that vaccines use to bolster the immune system against Covid.
His more alarming tone contrasts with efforts by politicians to project calm regarding Omicron.
Biden said he was directing regulators to push as fast as possible – without cutting corners – to approve rapidly any new vaccines.
Biden reiterated his message in a series of tweets, saying he hoped updated vaccinations or boosters would not be necessary as leaders around the world scrambled to react to Omicron
Almost 70 percent of the U.S. population has now had one dose of the vaccine or more, but that still leaves millions unprotected across the country
He repeated the point in an evening tweet.
‘In the event — hopefully unlikely — that updated vaccinations or boosters are needed to respond to Omicron, we will accelerate their development and deployment with every available tool,’ he said.
‘I am sparing no effort and removing all roadblocks to keep the American people safe.’
The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned the new variant poses a ‘severe’ risk to the world’s pandemic recovery and the odds of it being infectious enough to spread quickly are ‘very high.’
Omicron, which was first identified in South Africa but is thought to have originated in Botswana, is the most-mutated form of the coronavirus yet found.
Biden returned from his Thanksgiving break on Sunday to be met by his scientific advisers as they planned their response.
But in his speech, he insisted that the infectious new variant was not a cause for panic and said no new restrictions were needed.
‘We’ll fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions and speed, not chaos and confusion,’ he said.
Even amid the pressing nature of the new variant, Biden managed to misstate its name.
‘It’s called the Omnicron,’ he said, inserting an extra ‘n’ – an error his coronavirus adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who was standing in the background, also committed on Sunday.
Hours after the speech the CDC strengthened their guidance to recommend that all adults get a booster.