ROME—The CEO of drugmaker Moderna expressed worrying concern about how the world’s existing vaccines will cope against the heavily mutated Omicron coronavirus variant.
In an interview with the Financial Times published early Tuesday, Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel warned: “There is no world, I think, where [the effectiveness] is the same level... we had with Delta... 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.’”
On Monday, Bancel told CNBC that his company’s scientists won’t know how effective the existing vaccines are against Omicron for a few weeks, and he said that a rejigged vaccine that can tackle the COVID super-mutant could take months to produce, suggesting that people may need a “double dose” of booster shots.
“It took around four months for Delta to take over Beta, and it seems it’s taking just a couple weeks for this new variant to take over Delta,” he told CNBC Tuesday. “We’ve lowered the dose of a booster of a current vaccine, and so we have a lot of safety data showing that we could go back to a higher microgram dose at double the dose of a current vaccine, which should provide better protection than the third dose booster at 50 micrograms. So that's the first line of defence, actionable right away.”
Global financial markets plummeted after the FT published its interview with the Moderna boss.
On the same CNBC program, Pfizer chief Albert Bourla expressed confidence that the company’s jab works against all known mutations of coronavirus, including Omicron, but said they are already working on a modified version of the current formula to make sure. “Within 95 days basically we will have a new vaccine,” he said Tuesday.
There are no known deaths yet reported by those with the Omicron variant, though the South African National Institute for Communicable Diseases said it is driving up cases and hospital stays. At the same time, it said fewer patients are being treated for severe disease than in the virus’ devastating previous surges.
Echoing Moderna’s grim news early Tuesday is a preliminary study that shows the antibody mix Regeneron, the monoclonal treatment favored by former President Donald Trump, may also be no match for the super-mutated coronavirus variant. Trump used the drug—which has become a mainstay among his followers—to treat his own bout with COVID-19 in October 2020.
In a study released by the company Tuesday, the COVID-19 treatment was said to “lose effectiveness against Omicron.”
“What we have to admit is, in the course of the past six days, our urgency has increased,” Regeneron chief George Yancopoulos told The Wall Street Journal. “What started out as a backup plan has now been made a lot more urgent.”
While experts on the scientific side of the pandemic work to answer key questions about the new variant’s effect on vaccines, treatments, and humans, anecdotal evidence by some people who have been infected with the Omicron strain say it isn’t so bad at all.
A 48-year-old Italian man who was identified as Italy’s Omicron “patient zero” told state broadcaster RAI that he feels pretty good. His name has not been released, but he works for the Italian multinational Eni and had flown from Mozambique to Italy via Milan on Nov. 12, after he had a negative PCR test in the African nation.
In Italy, he spent time with his family in Caserta, north of Naples, and then planned to return to Mozambique on Nov. 16. It was there that he tested positive for COVID-19 and, because of his travels to Africa, his results were analyzed and determined to be an infection by the Omnicron variant. His entire family of five, including an 81-year-old grandparent and an 8-year-old child, have since tested positive for the new variant and their contacts, including the schools the children attended, are being traced and tested.
Doctors have said they assume he got it on his voyage to Africa that ended Nov. 12, not in Italy upon his return—but it is impossible to know when he was infected, as he was not tested upon his return.
“I am satisfied I got vaccinated because in our case the vaccine has worked really well,” he told Radio RAI on Monday. “Considering the mild symptoms experienced by myself and my family, which includes people between the ages of 8 and 81, I can say the infection manifested itself in a light way.”
While hardly a scientific sample, he added that his family members all had different vaccines, including Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca. His 8-year-old had not been vaccinated yet because the jabs are not yet offered to under 12s in Italy.
In the Netherlands, where 61 people on two flights from South Africa tested positive for COVID-19 (among them at least 14 with Omicron), the local health authority says the potent variant was already in the country when those flights arrived. Test samples from positive swabs taken on Nov. 19 and 23 tested positive for Omicron, meaning the variant was already in the country. “It is not clear whether these people had also visited Africa,” a statement by the health authority reads, adding it will start contact tracing now to determine how widespread the variant infections are.
Experts say it will take about two weeks to fully understand the level of threat Omicron poses. While it is not the first coronavirus variant—Delta is blamed for hundreds of thousands of deaths around the world—Omicron is worrying because it has more than 30 mutations to the spike protein that allows the virus to bind to human cells.