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The COVID-19 pandemic is 80% likely to be in its final stages, says Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel

February 16, 2022, 12:23 PM UTC

Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel thinks it very likely that Omicron’s relative mildness indicates the final stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, even if the coronavirus will likely stick around forever like the flu.

“I think this is a reasonable scenario,” he told CNBC Wednesday. “The way I think about it, there’s an 80% chance that as Omicron evolves or SARS-CoV-2 virus evolves, we are going to see less and less virulent viruses.” Conversely, he warned, there’s also a 20% likelihood that we will still see a new mutation of the coronavirus that is more virulent, as the virus is “really unpredictable.”

Less than six weeks ago, Bancel said it was likely people would need second boosters in the coming fall, due to waning efficacy of the first dose. On Wednesday, he again referred to the need for annual boosters, but only for high-risk people such as the over-fifties and those with significant comorbidity factors.

Not in WHO South Africa project

Moderna’s share price—and those of its vaccine-making rivals—fell significantly earlier this week, owing to the rapid drop in Omicron case numbers in the U.S., which prompted White House chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci to talk about the country’s exiting the “full-blown pandemic phase” of COVID-19.

Even in that context, Bancel’s optimism is notable, given Moderna’s refusal to participate in a project by the World Health Organization (WHO) and South African scientists to create a new mRNA COVID vaccine that is based on certain publicly available information about Moderna’s vaccine.

The Cape Town–based biotech Afrigen has successfully made tiny lab-scale samples of the new vaccine, but production will take a few years to scale up unless Moderna or another mRNA vaccine–maker helps Afrigen figure out key details, in which case doses could hit the ground within 12 to 18 months.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, on Monday described the South African experiment as a “historic initiative” of the sort that “will help bring this pandemic to an end and keep us all safer.”

“In some countries, high vaccine coverage, combined with the lower severity of Omicron, is driving a false narrative that the pandemic is over,” Tedros said. “At the same time, low vaccine coverage and low testing rates in other countries are creating the ideal conditions for new variants to emerge.”

So, while Bancel could be right that the pandemic is entering its final stages, the likelihood of that happening would be significantly raised if Moderna and its rivals started cooperating with efforts to scale up vaccine production where it’s needed most.

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