Moderna chief predicts ‘material drop’ in effectiveness of vaccines against omicron

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

Matt Mathers
Tuesday 30 November 2021 14:00
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Existing vaccines could be less effective against the new omicron Covid variant than previous strains, the chief of jab-maker Moderna has predicted in an ominous warning as the UK prepares to extend its booster programme to millions more people.

Prime minister Boris Johnson will give a press conference at 4pm when he is expected to set out his government's plan for giving extra doses to everyone over the age of 18. The gap between second and third jabs has also been slashed from six to three months, in changes confirmed on Monday.

But in a concerning development on Tuesday morning, Stéphane Bancel, Moderna's chief executive, said: "There is no world, I think, where [the effectiveness] is the same level...we had with [the] delta [variant]".

He also warned that it could take months for pharmaceutical companies to produce new variant-specific vaccines at the scale required should omicron become the dominant strain.

Scientists and experts in the UK believe that extending the booster programme is the right move and a "sensible precaution" because they hope it will strengthen people's immune systems to cope better with the new strain.

But because of the large number of mutations on omicron's spike protein - which allows it to enter the body's cells - there is no guarantee that current vaccines, designed to counter the original variant, will be a silver bullet in limiting its spread.

The full picture of whether omicron will be more transmissible or more dangerous than the delta variant will not be known for around two weeks. But scientists are beginning to put the pieces of the puzzle together and the early indications are not positive.

“I think it’s going to be a material drop," Mr Bancel told the Financial Times. "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.’”

In an interview with Channel 4 News on Monday night, London School of Economics’ Professor John Edmunds, a member of the government’s SAGE group of scientific advisors and models, gave one of the most sobering assessments yet of the new variant.

He said that cases in South Africa are increasing rapidly despite the population being largely immune – through natural immunity or inoculation – and pointed out that, even if omicron is no more severe than delta but is far more transmissible, that will inevitably result in an increase in hospitalisations – the key metric driving decision-making in Whitehall.

“This is a very serious turn for the worst, there’s no question about that. It’s early days, but the early indications look very poor,” he added.

The NHS is preparing to roll out some 20 million additional vaccine shots in the coming weeks. Speaking to the BBC earlier on Tuesday, Dr Jenny Harries, head of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), said there is a current period "of great uncertainty" in understanding the new variant.

She told BBC Breakfast the booster dose of vaccine will “we hope, to some extent, counter the potential drop in vaccine effectiveness we might find with this variant”.

The forecasts of Professor Edmunds and Mr Bancel are in contrast to the more positive outlooks being projected by some other politicians and public health experts.

US president Joe Biden has described omicron as a "cause for concern, not a cause for panic" a day after it was detected in North America.

He added that there was no need for a new lockdown "for now... if people are vaccinated and wear their masks". Cases have been found in Canada, and the US has imposed travel bans on eight southern African countries, where the variant was first detected.

Mr Bancel's comments set off fresh alarm bells in financial markets on Tuesday. Major European stock markets fell around 1.5 per cent in early trade, Tokyo's Nikkei index closed down 1.6 per cent, crude oil futures shed more than 3 per cent, and the Australian dollar hit a one-year low.

Moderna and fellow drugmakers BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson are working on vaccines that specifically target omicron in case existing shots are not effective against it. Moderna has also been testing a higher dose of its existing booster.

The University of Oxford has said that it can "rapidly" update its Covid-19 vaccine "if it should be necessary".

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