The chief executive of U.S. drug maker Moderna has predicted that existing vaccines will be less effective against Omicron than they were against the Delta coronavirus variant, a comment that brought global stock markets down sharply.
Stéphane Bancel said it would take two weeks to get data on the performance of existing vaccines against the new variant of Covid and whether it caused serious illness – but it would take several months to fine-tune the vaccines to deal with it.
“There are no people, I think, where [the effectiveness] is at the same level… as we had with Delta, ”he told the Financial Times.
Other prominent voices, however, have come forward in an attempt to allay fears. Vaccine maker Pfizer and the University of Oxford predicted that existing vaccines would continue to prevent serious illness.
“We believe it is likely that people will benefit from substantial protection against serious illnesses caused by Omicron,” said Ugur Sahin, CEO and co-founder of Pfizer’s German partner, BioNTech, who defined critical illnesses as cases requiring hospital treatment.
“In my opinion, there is no reason to be particularly worried. The only thing that worries me right now is the fact that there are people who have not been vaccinated at all. “
The two companies said on Friday that they could produce and ship an updated version of their vaccine within 100 days if the new variant of Covid detected in southern Africa escapes the current one.
The University of Oxford, which manufactures the AstraZeneca vaccine, said in a statement: “We will carefully assess the implications of the emergence of [Omicron] for vaccine immunity.
“Despite the emergence of new variants over the past year, vaccines have continued to provide very high levels of protection against serious disease and there is so far no evidence that Omicron is any different. “
Israel’s health minister expressed cautious optimism. Nitzan Horowitz was speaking on Tuesday after two more cases of Omicron were identified in the country, bringing his total to four.
Without citing any data or reason for his optimism, he told reporters: “In the coming days we will have more specific information on the effectiveness of the vaccine against Omicron, but there is already room for optimism. and there are early indications that those who are vaccinated with a still valid vaccine or with a booster, will also be protected from this variant.
The remarks come amid conflicting information about the likely effectiveness of various vaccines and therapies against the new variant. German pharmaceutical group Merck has said it expects its drug Covid to be effective.
Bancel suggested that pharmaceutical companies would find it difficult to target Omicron and existing variants of Covid, and said it would be risky to move all of Moderna’s production capacity to an Omicron-specific jab.
He said it might be warranted to give stronger boosters to the elderly or those with weakened immune systems.
He said the high number of mutations in Omicron’s spike protein, which the virus uses to infect human cells, and the variant’s rapid spread in South Africa, suggest there may be a “drop-off” material ‘efficiency.
Moderna’s comments fueled further declines in global stock prices, adding to Friday’s sell-off. The Hong Kong stock index closed at its lowest level in more than a year, down 1.6%. The FTSE 100 index in London fell 1.5% to its lowest level in seven weeks, before closing down 50 points or 0.7% at 7,059 points after comments from BioNTech.
The FTSE 100 recorded its worst month in over a year, falling around 2.5% in November, the biggest drop since October 2020, when it lost nearly 5%, just before the Successful vaccine trials will spark a global rally in November 2020.
Jefferies chief executive Mohit Kumar said Bancel’s comments were concerning. “The comments likely reflect the reality of the current situation and the uncertainty surrounding Omicron’s impact. We should get more clarity in a few weeks, but the market would remain at overall risk until then. “