The head of vaccine maker Moderna has warned that existing jabs will be much less effective at targeting the new Omicron variant than earlier strains of Covid.
Stéphane Bancel’s comments have sparked fresh concerns about the trajectory of the pandemic as more cases of the highly-infectious mutation are found in the UK.
‘There is no world, I think, where (the effectiveness) is the same level . . . we had with Delta,’ he told the Financial Times.
‘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 the high number of Omicron mutations on the spike protein – which the virus uses to infect human cells – and the rapid spread of the strain in South Africa suggests that the current crop of jabs may need to be modified.
But he warned it would take months before pharmaceutical companies could make variant-specific vaccines at scale.
The ominous warning strikes a different tone to UK ministers and public health experts, who have said existing jabs will confer a degree of protection against Omicron.
Governments in England and Scotland have confirmed their intention to speed up the vaccine booster programme – with all adults over 18 being offered a third jab three months after their second.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommended the move yesterday after early studies showed boosters may provide more protection against the new strain.
Boris Johnson is set to give a press conference from Downing Street this afternoon on the latest developments.
It comes after three more cases of the worrying variant were identified in Scotland, taking the UK’s total to 14.
There is growing concern over the new strain, which experts fear may be more infectious than Delta, and could potentially be resistant to vaccines – leading to more deaths and hospitalisations.
Scientists are desperately gathering data before confirming if those suspicions are true, as governments around the world enforce precautionary restrictions.
Some new measures were reintroduced in the UK today, including mandatory masks on public transport and in shops and the requirement for all arrivals to self-isolate until they have received a negative result from a day two PCR test.
Anyone who comes into contact with an Omicron case will also have to quarantine for 10 days, regardless of their vaccination status.
Health minister Gillian Keegan faced questions this morning amid fears of last year’s ‘cancelled’ Christmas repeating itself.
She said the government is ‘hoping we can keep Christmas on track’, adding the situation is very different following the vaccine rollout.
Bancel told the FT 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, he added.
But US President Joe Biden said while Omicron was ‘a cause for concern’ it was ‘not a cause for panic’, adding that his government’s medical experts ‘believe that the vaccines will continue to provide a degree of protection against severe disease’.
And on Monday, Scott Gottlieb, a Pfizer director, told CNBC: ‘There’s a reasonable degree of confidence in vaccine circles that [with] at least three doses . . . the patient is going to have fairly good protection against this variant.’
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