Two of the three biggest western vaccine makers tried to calm fears over a new coronavirus strain, with the University of Oxford and BioNTech predicting existing jabs would continue to prevent severe disease.
Markets had fallen earlier on Tuesday after the chief executive of Moderna, the third big vaccine maker, told the Financial Times that existing vaccines were likely to be much less effective against the Omicron variant and it would take months to manufacture replacement jabs at scale.
“There is no world, I think, where [the effectiveness] is the same level . . . we had with [the] Delta [variant],” Stéphane Bancel said in an interview at Moderna’s headquarters in Massachusetts.
He added: “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 Tuesday, Ugur Sahin, the head of BioNTech, which makes a leading Covid-19 vaccine with Pfizer, struck a more upbeat tone.
“We believe that fully vaccinated individuals will still have a high level of protection against severe disease caused by Omicron,” said Sahin, citing current knowledge of the mechanism of the vaccine and previous examples from other variants. “We anticipate that booster vaccination will further increase protection . . . and potentially provide protection against disease of any severity.”
BioNTech and Pfizer were ready to adapt the vaccine within six weeks and ship the first batches within 100 days if necessary, he said. His remarks were first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
Separately, Oxford, which makes another coronavirus vaccine with AstraZeneca, said in a statement there was “no evidence so far” that existing vaccines would not continue to provide protection against Omicron, as they have for previous variants of concern.
“We will carefully evaluate the implications of the emergence of [Omicron] for vaccine immunity,” the university said. “Despite the appearance of new variants over the past year, vaccines have continued to provide very high levels of protection against severe disease and there is no evidence so far that Omicron is any different.”
Oxford added it had the “necessary tools and processes in place for rapid development of an updated Covid-19 vaccine if it should be necessary”.
There is still a lack of reliable data on vaccine efficacy against Omicron and the pharma industry’s forecasts drew short shrift from the World Health Organization’s chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan.
“We believe it’s premature to draw any conclusions about the efficacy of vaccines against Omicron,” she told the FT. “WHO has convened all our expert groups and scientists are working on experiments to test neutralisation capacity of stored sera from recovered patients or vaccinated individuals against the new variant. This will take a few weeks.”
Swaminathan said “we need to be patient”, pending full “clinical effectiveness studies to truly understand if this variant is able to overcome the immunity generated by existing vaccines”.
Bancel said the high number of Omicron mutations on the spike protein, which the virus uses to infect human cells, and the rapid spread of the variant in South Africa, suggested that the current crop of vaccines may need to be modified next year.
He said 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 Covid.
Most experts thought such a highly mutated variant would not emerge for another year or two, Bancel added.
The Moderna chief’s predictions rattled investors on Tuesday morning, with equities and crude prices dropping. Comments from US Federal Reserve chair Jay Powell suggesting the central bank may rein in crisis stimulus measures more quickly than previously thought later prompted strong selling on Wall Street.
Additional reporting by Hannah Kuchler in London, Erika Solomon in Berlin and Hudson Lockett in Hong Kong