Moderna chief Stephane Bancel believes that existing vaccines will be less effective against the new COVID-19 variant omicron. He warned that it could take months for pharmaceutical companies to manufacture new variant-specific jabs at scale.
Bancel told the Financial Times that the high number of omicron mutations on the spike protein and the rapid spread of the variant in South Africa suggested that 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 the delta variant,” he said. “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 highlighted that scientists were worried because 32 of the 50 mutations in the omicron variant are on the spike protein, which current vaccines focus on to boost the human body’s immune system to combat the coronavirus. “Most experts though such a highly mutated variant would not emerge for another year or two.”Bancel said data showing how existing vaccines performed against the omicron variant, and whether it caused severe disease, should become available within two weeks.
Omicron is the newest coronavirus variant which was first detected in South Africa and has quickly spread across the world to European countries, Australia and Hong Kong. Countries have imposed travel restrictions to stem its spread.
Scientists say omicron also carries a mutation called D614G, which appears to help the virus better attach to the cells it infects. Dr Peter English, former chair of the British Medical Association’s Public Health Medicine Committee, in a statement said the number of mutations per se does not mean that the new variant will cause any problems, although it may make it more likely to look different to the immune system.
Experts are worried about the number of mutations affecting the spike protein. As such, vaccines made by Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca and other companies all use just small pieces or genetic sequences of the virus and not whole virus, and all of them use bits of the spike protein to elicit immunity. Researchers are waiting to see if more breakthrough infections are caused by omicron than by other variants.
Scott Gottlieb, director of Pfizer and former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration, said 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. US president Joe Biden said the government’s medical experts believe that the vaccines will continue to provide a degree of protection against severe disease.