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Moderna’s CEO believes new COVID vaccines are likely needed to protect against the Omicron variant

November 30, 2021, 8:13 AM UTC

The plethora of mutations in the omicron variant are likely to help it evade the protection provided by existing vaccines, making it necessary to develop new immunizations, Moderna Inc. Chief Executive Officer Stephane Bancel told the Financial Times, triggering a pullback in risk assets. 

Bancel effectively reiterated comments made by Moderna’s Chief Medical Officer Paul Burton at the weekend, that omicron may elude current vaccines, and if so, a reformulated shot would be available early in the new year. The CEO seemed to damp expectations new vaccines could be ready soon, however, saying in the FT interview it may take months for pharmaceutical companies to develop and deploy updated immunizations that they can deliver in large numbers. 

There is no way the current shots will provide the same level of protection against omicron as they do against delta, and there will be a material drop in their efficacy, he said.  

“I just don’t know how much because we need to wait for the data,” Bancel was quoted as saying. “All the scientists I’ve talked to . . . are like ‘this is not going to be good”’

Bancel’s definitiveness appeared to spook markets, with stocks in Asia retreating along with U.S. and European index futures and crude oil. 

Moderna said last week that it has already been studying booster shots that were designed to anticipate mutations such as those that have emerged in the omicron variant and will rapidly advance a candidate targeting this new strain specifically.

Current vaccines from developers including Moderna, Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE, AstraZeneca Plc and Johnson & Johnson are all able to help reduce the risk of severe infection and death from previous strains of the virus, though they work less well against the more transmissible delta variant. 

Research is still underway to determine if omicron causes the same level of illness as older versions of the virus, if it can evade protection from vaccines and previous infections, and if it will be able to outcompete the existing strains as the pathogen continues to circulate throughout the world. 

Moderna is striking a more pessimistic tone than Pfizer, with Chief Executive Officer Albert Bourla saying earlier in an interview with Bloomberg Television that omicron will know in two to three weeks how well its current shot holds up against omicron, and even in a worst-case scenario he expects the existing formula will retain some efficacy against the heavily mutated strain. 

Bourla said Pfizer will be ready with a vaccine targeting omicron in 100 days, should it be necessary. 

Chinese vaccine maker Sinovac Biotech Ltd, whose inactivated COVID shot has been widely used in China and much of the developing world, said it’s also evaluating its vaccine’s performance against omicron and the necessity for a new shot. The company said it can rapidly come up a new vaccine and manufacture it at scale quickly. Meanwhile, Chinese company CanSino Biologics Inc and Japanese drugmaker Shionogi & Co have both said they’re working on new vaccines for the variant. 

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