Moderna COVID vaccine may be less effective against omicron, chief says. What to know

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There’s a chance the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine may lose some of its effectiveness when put up against the omicron coronavirus variant that has a weary world on high alert, according to the company‘s chief executive officer.

Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel told the Financial Times that the company’s vaccine may eventually need a makeover, citing the large number of mutations on omicron’s spike protein — which the coronavirus uses to enter human cells — and early evidence indicating rapid spread of the variant in South Africa, where it was first detected.

“There is no world, I think, where [the effectiveness] is the same level . . . we had with [the] Delta [variant],” Bancel told the outlet. “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.’”

Bancel said experts were not expecting a variant with so many mutations for at least another two years. Among 50 mutations, 30 are on the spike protein, which the Moderna vaccine targets.

The omicron variant has not been detected in the U.S. as of Nov. 30, officials say.

However, much remains unknown about whether the variant can cause more severe disease, evade vaccines or thwart immunity from past infection. Early evidence suggests there’s an increased risk of reinfection, despite vaccination or prior history of COVID-19, and that this version spreads more rapidly than others.

Moderna working on ‘omicron-specific’ booster shot

In the event omicron evades COVID-19 shots to a clinically significant degree, Moderna officials said they are ready.

The company announced on Nov. 26 that it’s developing an “omicron-specific” booster shot and testing whether its current vaccine is effective against the variant. Moderna said “data is expected in the coming weeks.”

“From the beginning, we have said that as we seek to defeat the pandemic, it is imperative that we are proactive as the virus evolves,” Bancel said in a news release. “The mutations in the omicron variant are concerning and for several days, we have been moving as fast as possible to execute our strategy to address this variant.”

Other experts are looking at the future with a brighter point of view.

Ugur Sahin, CEO of BioNTech, which partnered with Pfizer for its COVID-19 vaccine, cautioned against fears the omicron variant may render its vaccine ineffective.

“Don’t freak out,” Sahin said, according to Bloomberg Law. “The plan remains the same: Speed up the administration of a third booster shot.”

During a Nov. 30 White House COVID-19 briefing, Dr. Anthony Fauci, White House chief medical adviser, said omicron’s mutations suggest it may overpower vaccines’ defenses to a certain degree. But Fauci said the shots will likely still produce antibody levels strong enough to protect you against severe disease and death.

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins agrees.

There’s “reason to be pretty optimistic” that our COVID-19 vaccines will still protect you against the omicron variant, Collins told MSNBC on Monday, Nov. 29. “All of the other variants that have emerged during this COVID-19 pandemic have shown response to the vaccine, including delta.”

Omicron coronavirus variant is mysterious — but there’s some good news. What to know

Studies show Moderna vaccine offers strong protection over time

A new study, which did not examine the omicron variant’s potential impact on vaccine protection, found the Moderna vaccine maintained its high protection up to five months after second doses. Effectiveness stood at 87% against COVID-19 infection, 96% against hospitalization and 98% against death among more than 352,000 people.

Results from a laboratory study released in June showed the Moderna vaccine appears effective against the delta variant — which makes up 99% of all sequenced coronavirus cases in the U.S. as of Nov. 30 — as well as other variants tested, with just a “modest reduction” in antibody levels compared to the original strain.

But antibodies aren’t the only defenses your immune system has to fight the coronavirus, experts say. There are other components such as memory B cells and T cells that have major virus killing roles, too, though these are less understood in the context of COVID-19.

A study published in September revealed evidence suggesting the Moderna shot may offer more protection against COVID-19 than other available vaccines. Among 167 people, those who received the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine had “slightly higher” antibody levels than those who received the Pfizer shot.

While both vaccines insert molecules called mRNA that teach our bodies how to produce coronavirus antibodies, the Moderna shot uses more than three times the amount of mRNA than the Pfizer vaccine. This, the University of Virginia School of Medicine researchers said, could explain their findings.

It’s still unclear if more antibodies equals more or better protection against the disease.

But what matters most is that all COVID-19 vaccines, including the Johnson & Johnson shot, protect people from severe disease and death, experts say. Although breakthrough infections after vaccination are possible, they are not as common as infections among the unvaccinated.

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