Speaking to the Financial TimesStéphane Bancel said the large number of mutations in the variant suggested that COVID-19 vaccines around the world may need to be adjusted to maintain their effectiveness against the virus, if Omicron becomes dominant.
“There are no people, I think, where [the effectiveness] is the same level… that we had with Delta, ”Bancel told FT on Tuesday.
“I think it’s going to be a material drop. I don’t know how much because we have to wait for the data. But every scientist I’ve spoken to… is like ‘this is not going to be good’. “
On Monday, new guidelines released by the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that the newly identified and “widely divergent” variant posed a “very high” global risk.
However, the world health body also pointed out that there was still “considerable uncertainty” about the impact the variant might have.
Why is spike protein important?
In a WHO technical note provided to member states, the organization described the variant as having “an unprecedented number” of mutations in the spike protein.
Spike protein is the part of the virus that is used to invade cells in the body.
The high number of mutations in Omicron’s spike protein – believed to be between 26 and 32 – is potentially ‘of concern’ as it could make the variant more transmissible and more resistant to the protection offered by vaccination or recovering from other COVID-19 variants, the WHO said.
This is because current COVID-19 vaccines – both mRNA vaccines like Moderna and Pfizer / BioNTech and viral load vaccines like AstraZeneca – work by producing a copy of the coronavirus spike protein in the body so that the immune system attacks.
If Omicron’s spike protein differs significantly from those of older variants, it could limit the effectiveness of the body’s immune response.
But in an interview with UK broadcaster Sky, South African government adviser and epidemiologist Salim Abdool Karim said that while there was “very early evidence” of increased transmissibility and reinfection in vaccinated patients or cured, people should not “overdo the very old data”.
“We won’t have a full picture for about three to four weeks. But at this point, we don’t see any red flags that we need to be particularly concerned about, ”he said.
“The math doesn’t work”
German vaccine maker BioNTech said last week it expected more data on the new variant within two weeks, which could indicate whether or not it needs to update its COVID jab.
“Pfizer and BioNTech took steps months ago to be able to adapt the mRNA vaccine within six weeks and ship the initial batches within 100 days if there is an escape variant,” the company said in a statement.
In contrast, developing a vaccine specific to Omicron could take months, said Bancel, CEO of Moderna.
« [Moderna] and Pfizer can’t get a billion doses next week. The math doesn’t work. But could we get the billion doses out by the summer? Of course, ”he told FT.
Watch the full interview with Moderna Vice President and Head of Europe, Middle East, Russia & Africa Dan Steiner in the video player above.