The chief executive of Moderna has predicted that existing vaccines will be much less effective at tackling Omicron than earlier strains of Covid-19 and warned it would take months before pharmaceutical companies can manufacture new variant-specific jabs at scale.
Stéphane Bancel said the high number of Omicron mutations on the spike protein, which the virus uses to infect human cells, and the rapid spread of the variant in South Africa, suggested the current crop of vaccines may need to be modified next year.
“There is no world, I think, where [the effectiveness] is the same level . . . we had with Delta,” Bancel told the Financial Times in an interview at the company’s headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
He added: “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’.”
The Moderna chief executive’s comments come as other public health experts and politicians have tried to strike a more upbeat tone about the ability of existing vaccines to confer protection against Omicron.
On Monday, Scott Gottlieb, a director of Pfizer and former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration, told CNBC: “There’s a reasonable degree of confidence in vaccine circles that [with] at least three doses . . . the patient is going to have fairly good protection against this variant.”
Joe Biden, US president, subsequently said Omicron was “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” adding that the government’s medical experts “believe that the vaccines will continue to provide a degree of protection against severe disease”.
However, Bancel said scientists were worried because 32 of the 50 mutations in the Omicron variant are on the spike protein, which the current vaccines focus on to boost the human body’s immune system to combat Covid-19.
Most experts thought such a highly mutated variant would not emerge for another one or two years, Bancel added.
Bancel’s predictions rattled investors in Asia, with equities and stock futures dropping and crude prices losing ground.
In Japan, the benchmark Nikkei 225 index swung to a loss of as much as 1.1 per cent following the FT report. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index was 2.3 per cent lower. S&P 500 futures erased initial gains to tip US stocks to drop almost 1 per cent, while FTSE 100 was set to shed 1.2 per cent at the open in London.
Concerns over the variant drove traders to seek safety in bonds, pushing the yield on 10-year US Treasuries down 0.05 percentage points, while in commodities markets Brent crude, the international oil benchmark, reversed course to be down almost 2 per cent at $72.04 a barrel.
Moderna and Pfizer have become the vaccine suppliers of choice for most of the developed world due to the high effectiveness of their jabs, which are based on messenger RNA (mRNA) technology.
In August, Moderna announced that people vaccinated with two doses of its jab “maintained antibodies through six months, including against variants of concern such as the Delta variant”.
But studies suggest the company’s vaccine is less effective at preventing outbreaks of Delta than earlier strains of the virus.
A Stanford University study of a Delta outbreak at a California prison published last month found that the company’s jab was 56.6 per cent effective against infection. That was substantially lower than the level in studies conducted before the emergence of Delta, the researchers said.
Moderna and Pfizer are now working on new vaccines to target the Omicron variant, which the World Health Organization has said poses a “very high risk”.
Bancel said data giving an indication of how the existing vaccines perform against the Omicron variant, and whether it causes severe disease, should become available within two weeks.
But he said it would take several months before an Omicron-specific vaccine could be produced at scale, and suggested there might be a case for giving more potent boosters to the elderly or people with compromised immune systems in the meantime.
“[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, who predicted Moderna could make a total of 2bn-3bn doses in 2022.
But he said it would be risky to shift Moderna’s entire production capacity to an Omicron-targeted jab at a time when other variants are still in circulation.
Bancel also hit out at critics who have accused vaccine makers of not doing enough to support jab rollouts in developing countries such as South Africa, where only a quarter of the population is fully inoculated, according to Johns Hopkins University.
“This was mostly a policy decision by the rich countries. In the US, we were told we had no choice but to give 60 per cent of our output to the US government. That was not a Moderna decision, that was a US government decision,” he said.
Bancel also said there was a surplus of jabs earmarked for Africa and that 70m Moderna vaccines were sitting in warehouses because Covax — an international body tasked with inoculating low income nations — or individual governments had not taken delivery of them.
He said: “We are running out of space. It’s because either they don’t have customs documents, or they don’t have fridge space, or because the ability to get doses in arms is a challenge.”