After spending yesterday doing interviews with practically every major American news organization, Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel on Tuesday tanked shares in his own company after telling Britain's premier financial newspaper that he expects vaccines will "struggle" to stop the omicron variant.
Existing jabs will be less effective at tackling omicron than earlier strains of COVID, and it may take months before pharmaceutical companies can manufacture new variant-specific jabs at scale, Bancel warned in an interview with the FT.
The CEO predicted a "material drop" in the current jabs' efficacy at fighting omicron.
Given the large number of mutations in omicron's spike protein (which is critical to the virus's ability to infect human cells), along with the "rapid spread" of the new variant in South Africa, Bancel believes the current crop of vaccines will need to be modified by next year.
Bancel told the FT that "there is no world where [the effectiveness] is the same level...we had with Delta," during an interview at Moderna's headquarters. Most experts believed such a highly mutated variant wouldn't emerge for another year or two, Bancel added.
Some might ask themselves why Bancel seems so eager to raise doubts about his own product. Keep in mind: public service isn't a factor here. Omicron is a blessing for Moderna and Pfizer, because ultimately it will enable them to sell more jabs.
The current crop of vaccines (including Moderna's) focuses on the spike protein, which is why the large number of mutations seen in omicron could render the jabs ineffective at stopping it, even for patients who have received both the vaccine and the booster.
More data detailing whether omicron causes severe disease in vaccinated patients are expected to be released within the next two weeks, Bancel added. Once they have the new data, Moderna expects to have the next batch of vaccines ready in a matter of months.
It's worth noting that Bancel wasn't the only Moderna executive to reiterate concerns about omicron.
Co-founder Noubar Afeyan told Bloomberg that the many mutations seen in omicron suggests new vaccines will be needed. "The number of mutations on this virus are surprising," Afeyan said.
One can't help but feel like the timing of this sudden emergence of a 'more infectious, less deadly' variant and the manic and coordinated response to such low case counts is anything but coincidental with the fact that vaccination rates have slowed and vaccine makers need new revenue sources (remember yesterday, the UK's health minister suggested citizens will need a booster every 3 months!?).
As for Bancel's comments, Prashant Newnaha, a senior Asia-Pac rates strategist with TD Securities in Singapore, said on Tuesday that the Moderna CEO's comments aren't really anything new, "so they should be a fade."
"While we won’t know with any clarity how disruptive this new variant will be, the uncertainty does remove the urgency for the Fed to announce a speed up in its taper and by extension an earlier Fed lift-off. On this basis the risk-reward favors curve-steepening trades," Newnaha said.
But it's not just vaccines that may need to be reformulated.
WSJ reported on preliminary data Tuesday which appear to show that antibody cocktails from Regeneron and Eli Lilly might also need to be modified to ensure they're able to defend against the new strains.
These findings are the result of the race to assess the impact of the new variant on COVID treatments that patients, doctors and hospitals have already been relying on. We're also waiting to hear more about the pills being developed by Merck, Pfizer and others - these pills promise to keep patients at risk of severe COVID out of the hospital. It appears the deciding factor will be whether the drugs target the spike protein, which is the locus of the new variant's mutations.
For those who are unfamiliar, monoclonal antibodies are lab-made molecules derived from survivors of COVID or mice engineered to have human immune systems. When given soon after infection, the drugs attach to the surface of the coronavirus and prevent it from replicating itself in new cells. The drugs differ from vaccines in this way: vaccines train the immune system how to protect against the virus. Regeneron says it will be able to quantify the impact of the variant in the coming weeks until further testing is done.
While these reports are new, none of this information is particularly surprising. Bancel has been pounding the alarm for the last week, and the preliminary results reported by WSJ appear to confirm scientists' fears that some of the treatments developed to combat COVID might be less effective. But the WSJ report doesn't tell us anything new about Merck's molnupiravir or Pfizer's as-yet-unnamed oral COVID treatment.
At any rate, after riding a wave of optimism higher on Monday, US equity futures pointed to a steep drop at the open on Tuesday, the latest sign that investors are still eager to hear more from the scientific community about omicron's ability, or inability, to surpass vaccines and drugs.