Moderna Just Gave a Major Update About a Booster for Omicron

The company's executives expect to have a shot specific to the new variant within months.

In just over a week, the Omicron variant has raised new concerns about the coming months of the pandemic. In addition to questions about how contagious it may be, experts are also worried that the most recent viral mutation may be able to evade the protection of existing vaccines and natural immunity in those who've had the virus. Health officials are urging everyone to get vaccinated or boosted in light of the quickly spreading variant, which was first reported in the U.S. on Dec. 1. But as we await more data on Omicron and the threats it may pose, an executive with vaccine manufacturer Moderna has laid out the company's plans to take on the variant with a new booster.

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In an interview with Reuters on Dec. 1, Moderna President Stephen Hoge, MD, said the company had already begun work on a shot designed specifically to tackle the latest variant. He also revealed that a multi-valent vaccine was in the works that would be able to target four different variants of the virus, including Omicron.

"We've already started that program," he told Reuters. However, he added that without changes from the FDA on the type of data needed for authorization, "the Omicron-specific boosters, just realistically, are not before March and maybe more in the second quarter."

Part of scientists' concern has focused on the large number of mutations to spike proteins on Omicron, with Hoge previously describing it to The New York Times as "a Frankenstein mix of all of the greatest hits." He explained to Reuters that researchers needed more data to assess the kind of threat the new variant could pose.

"The mutations that had previously led to the biggest drops in efficacy were seen in Delta and Beta. And all of those mutations have shown up in Omicron," Hoge said. "And so the question here is, are we going to see a Delta-like performance? Are we going to see a Beta-like performance? Or are we going to see some cross multiple of the two? I think it's that last scenario that has people most concerned."

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Hoge also explained that the company was currently testing to see whether people who received both 100 microgram initial doses of the company's vaccine and people who received the 50 microgram booster were still protected. But, ultimately, he remained cautiously optimistic when it came to current shots being able to take on the latest viral offshoot. "I still believe that the existing vaccines will be able to at least slow down, if not completely stop, the Omicron variant," he said.

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Hoge's comments come days after his colleague, Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel, expressed doubts over the ability of current vaccines to protect against Omicron in a Nov. 30 interview with the Financial Times. "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.

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Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson have also announced that they are working on vaccines specifically tailored to target the Omicron variant in case their existing shots are not effective against the new iteration of COVID. But health officials are cautioning the public to take action sooner rather than later to protect themselves.

"Right now, I would not be waiting," Anthony Fauci, MD, chief COVID adviser to the White House, said during a Dec. 1 press briefing, according to CNN. "People say, 'Well, if we're going to have a variant-specific booster, should we wait?' If you are eligible—think six months with a double mRNA dose or two months for the J&J—get boosted now."

Fauci went on to explain that even existing shots would offer a level of protection. "Our experience with variants such as the Delta variant is that even though the vaccine isn't specifically targeted to the Delta variant, when you get a high enough level of an immune response, you get spillover protection even against a variant that the vaccine wasn't specifically directed at," he said. "That's the reason why we feel even though we don't have a lot of data on it, there's every reason to believe that that kind of increase that you get with the boost would be helpful, at least in preventing severe disease of a variant like Omicron."

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Zachary Mack
Zach is a freelance writer specializing in beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He is based in Manhattan. Read more
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