The strain first identified in South Africa reportedly possessed more mutations than the earlier B16172 delta variant.
Speaking to the Financial Times, Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said the high number of mutations on the omicron variant's spike protein was concerning.
He added that scientists expressed worry that omicron's spike protein's 32 mutations could undermine the effectiveness of existing vaccines. The virus uses the spike protein to latch onto and infect human cells.
These factors, alongside the strain's rapid spread in South Africa and neighboring countries, suggest that existing vaccines may need to be modified.
Bancel said: "There is no world, I think, where the vaccine effectiveness is the same level … we had with the delta variant. 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.'"
In response, Moderna outlined three major strategies to address the new variant of concern.
First, it has started testing a higher dose booster shot of its mRNA-1273 vaccine. Second, it has studied two vaccine booster doses targeting specific mutations. Third, it has announced a booster dose – mRNA-1273.529 – exclusively for the omicron variant. (Related: Moderna to develop booster shot after South African strain decreased its coronavirus vaccine's antibody levels.)
Meanwhile, New York-based Regeneron Pharmaceuticals said its COVID-19 antibody cocktail and other similar treatments could be less effective against the omicron strain. However, it pointed out that there is no direct data available yet suggesting that the new variant may be resistant to vaccines and monoclonal antibodies.
In a Nov. 30 press release, Regeneron said it is already working on new antibody treatments to address omicron and other strains.
"Preliminary analyses suggest that several of these next generation antibodies may have the potential to retain activity against the omicron variant, as well as the other existing variants of concern," the company stated.
Meanwhile, other vaccine manufacturers have reiterated the need for vaccination, alongside announcements to develop boosters against the omicron strain.
The University of Oxford said there is no evidence that current vaccines would not prevent severe COVID-19 following an omicron infection. But it expressed its readiness to update the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. The university collaborated with the British drug manufacturer to develop the latter's COVID-19 adenoviral vector vaccine.
"Despite the appearance of new variants over the past year, vaccines have continued to provide very high levels of protection against severe disease. [There] is no evidence so far that omicron is any different. However, we have the necessary tools and processes in place for rapid development of an updated COVID-19 vaccine if it should be necessary," the university said in a statement.
BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin said the Pfizer vaccine, which his company helped develop, will likely offer "strong protection" against severe COVID-19 caused by omicron. He added that he expects lab tests to show diminished protection against mild and moderate COVID-19, but clarified that the extent of that loss was "hard to predict."
Emer Cooke, the executive director of the European Medicines Agency (EMA), emphasized that vaccines remain important in protecting people from COVID-19. "Even if the new [omicron] variant becomes more widespread, the vaccines we have will continue to provide protection," she told the European Parliament.
Cooke also told European lawmakers that while it is still unknown if drug manufacturers would need to modify their vaccines in response to the omicron strain, the EMA is preparing for that possibility.
"Were there a need to change the existing vaccines, we could be in a position to have those approved within three to four months. Companies adapting their formulations to include the new [variant] … will then have to show that the production system works. [They] will then have to do some clinical trials to determine that this actually works in practice," she said.
However, the Moderna CEO pointed out it would take months before a vaccine specifically targeting the omicron variant could be produced at scale. Bancel said: "[We] cannot get a billion doses next week, the math doesn't work. But could we get the billion doses out by the summer? Sure."
He earlier predicted that Moderna could make a total of two to three billion doses in 2022.
Bancel also warned that shifting Moderna's entire production capacity to manufacture a vaccine against omicron was risky, given that other variants were still circulating. (Related: YOU are the business model: Moderna says never-ending "booster" shots needed to eliminate covid.)
BigPharmaNews.com has more articles about drug companies using new COVID variants to justify the need for booster shots.