Moderna's CEO Just Made This Bleak Prediction About the New Variant
The vaccine expert shares concerns that existing vaccines will be less effective against Omicron
In the short time since being discovered, the Omicron variant has led to a new set of concerns about the next phase of the pandemic. Just days after labeling it a "Variant of Concern," the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that the latest viral offshoot poses a "very high" global risk due to the possibility that it spreads more easily and could be resistant to vaccines or natural immunity than the now dominant Delta variant. The scientific community cautions that data is still exceedingly sparse, and we won't know for sure what challenges it raises for at least a few days or weeks. But some experts, including Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel, predict the new Omicron variant could pose a serious threat as it spreads.
In an interview with the Financial Times published on Nov. 30, Bancel expressed fears that currently available COVID-19 vaccines may be less effective against the recently discovered Omicron variant. "There is no world, I think, where [the effectiveness] is the same level…we had with Delta," he said, adding that the number of mutations to spike proteins on the virus meant the currently used vaccines would likely have to be changed.
"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,'" Bancel warned.
The prediction comes on the heels of comments Bancel made just a day earlier about Moderna's preparations to fight Omicron. During an appearance on CNBC's Squawk Box on Nov. 29, the pharmaceutical CEO explained that while a higher-dose booster could be made available almost immediately, "it would be months" before the company could produce and ship large quantities of a vaccine that specifically targeted the variant.
According to Bancel, determining how much the variant's mutations might impact the vaccine's protective power will take at least two weeks. "Depending on how much it dropped, we might decide on the one hand to give a higher dose of the current vaccine around the world to protect people, maybe people at very high risk, the immunocompromised, and the elderly should need a fourth dose," he told CNBC.
However, it doesn't appear that Bancel's bleak outlook is shared by all of his colleagues. "I don't think that the result will be the vaccines don't protect," Albert Bourla, CEO of vaccine manufacturer Pfizer told CNBC's Squawk Box in a Nov. 29 interview. "I think the result could be, which we don't know yet, the vaccines protect less."
Pfizer and BioNTech have also discussed making an Omicron-specific vaccine as well. The two manufacturers behind the Pfizer vaccine said that they expect to be able to ship a new vaccine tailored to this variant in about 100 days if data shows that it needs to be reworked, Reuters reported.
"We understand the concern of experts and have immediately initiated investigations on [Omicron] variant B.1.1.529," BioNTech said in a statement when asked to comment. "We expect more data from the laboratory tests in two weeks at the latest. These data will provide more information about whether B.1.1.529 could be an escape variant that may require an adjustment of our vaccine if the variant spreads globally," it added.
For now, officials are urging the public to take precautions against the new variant after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced it was changing its guidelines on COVID-19 booster shots in response to the new variant, recommending that all eligible adults get theirs. In an address on Nov. 29, President Joe Biden said the existing shots were the best line of defense currently available against Omicron.
"If you're 18 years or over and got fully vaccinated before June the 1st, go get the booster shot today. They're free, and they're available at 80,000 locations coast to coast," he urged. "A fully vaccinated boosted person is the most protected against COVID."