November 30, 2021

Moderna chief predicts vaccines could struggle against omicron

As the world reacts to news of the new omicron variant, one of the world’s largest COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers is trying to answer one of the most pressing questions, whether the currently available vaccines will provide protection against the strain.

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared omicron a variant of concern last week, and while scientists around the world are scrambling to understand how this new strain of COVID-19 behaves, the CEO of Moderna is speaking out about vaccine efficacy against omicron. 

St├ęphane Bancel told the Financial Times he believes the current COVID-19 vaccines will be much less effective in providing protection against omicron than previous strains of the virus.

“There is no world, I think, where [the effectiveness] is the same level . . . we had with [the] Delta [variant],” said Bancel.

What makes omicron different is the number of mutations it carries, which the World Health Organization estimates to be somewhere between 26 to 32. That’s concerning to scientists because it could be associated with the virus’s ability to evade immunity and increase transmissibility. Bancel said most experts believed a variant with so many mutations would not emerge for another year or more.

WHO emphasized that there is still a high level of uncertainty with omicron and, for now, scientists need time to study the new strain. 

However, according to Bancel, the fate of the current COVID-19 vaccines’ efficacy against omicron has likely already been sealed.

“I think it’s going to be a material drop. I just don’t know how much because we need to wait for the data. But all the scientists I’ve talked to . . . are like, ‘This is not going to be good’,” he told the Financial Times. 

Moderna said it was conducting tests of its two-dose COVID-19 vaccine against omicron and expects results in the coming weeks. 

Bancel told the Financial Times that if a new vaccine was needed to combat the omicron variant it could take several months before Moderna could produce it at scale. Bancel added that it could be risky to shift his company’s production focus to an omicron-specific vaccine while there are still other variants in circulation, like delta.

Bancel estimated that Moderna could make a total of 2 to 3 billion vaccine doses in 2022.

“[Moderna] and Pfizer cannot get a billion doses next week. The maths doesn’t work. But could we get the billion doses out by the summer? Sure,” said Bancel. 

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