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Existing vaccines might not be as effective against omicron variant, Moderna CEO says

Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel. (Scott Eisen/Bloomberg News)

Moderna’s CEO predicted Tuesday that existing coronavirus vaccines would be much less effective at combating omicron compared with previous variants of the virus, spooking financial markets in the United States, Europe and Asia as scientists rush to learn about the new variant.

Stéphane Bancel told the Financial Times that it would take months for pharmaceutical companies to manufacture new variant-specific doses to address omicron, as public health officials and vaccine makers worldwide examine the tangible impact of the largely unknown variant. The spread of omicron in South Africa, which was among the first countries to identify the variant and is preparing for a potential surge in infections, caused Bancel to suggest that existing vaccines might need to be modified in 2022.

“There is no world, I think, where [the effectiveness] is the same level … we had with delta,” Bancel said, referring to the highly contagious variant that was first detected in India in late 2020.

Even though Bancel cautioned against panic when it comes to a variant the public still does not know much about, he told the Financial Times that his initial talks with scientists indicate what could be “a material drop” in vaccine effectiveness against omicron.

“I just don’t know how much, because we need to wait for the data,” he said. “But all the scientists I’ve talked to … [say], ‘This is not going to be good.’”

Coronavirus variants like omicron, delta and mu are an expected part of the virus's life cycle, but vaccines can prevent more infectious variants from forming. (Video: John Farrell, Hadley Green/The Washington Post)

Bancel’s comments set off fears in financial markets, including slumps in vaccine-related stocks from Moderna and BioNTech, the German partner of Pfizer. U.S. stock futures are down, and Asian markets retreated, while markets in Europe also fell. U.S. oil prices dropped below $70 a barrel, while gold rose and risk-sensitive currencies such as the Australian dollar weakened against the greenback. The 10-year Treasury yield also declined.

Warnings omicron could reduce vaccine effectiveness spook global markets

The Moderna CEO’s prediction comes as many questions remain unanswered about omicron — specifically, whether it’s as bad as it looks at first glance. Scientists from around the world are scrambling to answer pressing questions surrounding whether it can cause severe illness, if it’s more transmissible than the delta variant and whether it can erode or evade immunity.

The World Health Organization has said the “overall global risk” from omicron is “very high,” and it is pushing for governments worldwide to report cases of omicron and accelerate their vaccination drives. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention significantly expanded its recommendations for booster shots, saying that all adults 18 and older should get them.

Omicron mutations alarm scientists, but new variant first must prove it can outcompete delta

President Biden on Monday expressed confidence that the United States can handle omicron, saying, “This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.”

“We’ll fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions and speed, not chaos and confusion,” he said at the White House.

President Biden delivered remarks on the threat posed by the omicron coronavirus variant on Nov. 29, encouraging Americans to get vaccinated. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

But omicron is threatening both the rebound and growth of the U.S. economy. The chair of the Federal Reserve, Jerome H. Powell, warned in remarks prepared for congressional testimony Tuesday that “the recent rise in covid-19 cases and the emergence of the omicron variant pose downside risks to employment and economic activity and increased uncertainty for inflation.” He added that “greater concerns about the virus” could exacerbate existing problems, such as labor shortages and supply-chain struggles.

What to know about the omicron variant of the coronavirus

Bancel told the Financial Times that the omicron variant’s unruly bunch of mutations has worried scientists, many of whom did not expect such a highly mutative variant to emerge for another year or two. He noted that 32 of the 50 mutations in omicron have focused on the spike protein — the area where existing coronavirus vaccines help boost a person’s immune system to fight the virus.

Scientists told The Washington Post that omicron’s mutations were new and utterly enigmatic.

“We have seen these mutations in other strains, in twos and threes, and each time they were a little harder to neutralize but didn’t spread particularly well,” Benjamin Neuman, a virologist at Texas A&M University, said in an email to The Post on Tuesday. “Now, all together? It’s a complete black box.”

While it’s unclear whether existing vaccines will need to be modified next year to address omicron, Pfizer and BioNTech have said they are working to understand what level of protection their vaccines offer and how to adapt them. Chinese vaccine maker Sinovac says it is working with international partners to collect and analyze samples of omicron in an effort to determine how effective its inactivated vaccine, CoronaVac, is against the variant.

Bancel told the Financial Times that more data will be available within two weeks regarding how existing vaccines perform against omicron — and whether the variant causes severe illness. He stressed that it would take months before an omicron-specific vaccine is produced at scale for billions of doses.

“[Moderna] and Pfizer cannot get a billion doses next week. The [math] doesn’t work,” he told the outlet. “But could we get the billion doses out by the summer? Sure.”

Bancel emphasized, however, that it would be risky to shift the company’s vaccine production strategy solely toward omicron when other variants are still infecting people.

Joel Achenbach and David Crawshaw contributed to this report.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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