The chief executive of Moderna, a key COVID-19 vaccine maker, predicted a “material drop” in the shots’ efficacy against the omicron variant, spooking investors in early Tuesday trading amid new fears about the trajectory of the pandemic.
CEO Stephane Bancel, speaking to The Financial Times, said there is “no world” in which the vaccines are as effective against the variant newly discovered in South Africa as the delta variant that is dominant now.
“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,’” Mr. Bancel told the FT in an interview posted Tuesday.
His gloomy prediction is based on the fact that his vaccine and others focus on the spike protein of the virus, which is where the nearly 30 mutations reside.
Mr. Bancel’s comments contrast with those from scientists who predicted a mild impact on vaccines and from President Biden, who said omicron is a cause for concern but not panic.
Mr. Biden said the White House medical team believes “that the vaccines will continue to provide a degree of protection against severe disease.”
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Vaccine makers say it will take at least two weeks to assess how damaging omicron is to the shots’ dome of protection. They are drafting plans to develop a booster shot that is specifically tailored to omicron, but it would take at least three months to get it out the door and more time to manufacture it at scale.
In the meantime, drugmakers and federal scientists say existing boosters should offer additional protection against the virus and its variants.
“There’s reason to be optimistic current boosted vaccines will provide meaningful protection against [the omicron variant],” former Food and Drug Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said on Twitter, citing recently sequenced virus samples, clinical feedback from South Africa and prior experience with mutations that have “some immune escape.”
Likewise, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla tweeted “the best hedge” against omicron is to get the full vaccine and a booster shot as recommended. He said his company can make an omicron-specific vaccine within 100 days if needed.
Futures on the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 390 points, or 1.1%, after Mr. Bancel’s comments, denting a seeming recovery based on the belief the omicron variant might not be as big of a threat as first thought.
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome H. Powell told members of Congress on Tuesday that omicron could pose new economic risks.
“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,” Mr. Powell testified to the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. “Greater concerns about the virus could reduce people’s willingness to work in person, which would slow progress in the labor market and intensify supply-chain disruptions.”
At the same time, Mr. Powell signaled the central bank is so worried about inflation that it could accelerate its plan to pull back on purchases of $120 billion in government-backed securities each month — a form of pandemic-related support it has provided to bolster financial markets.
He said the economy will discuss at its December meeting whether to begin “wrapping up the taper of our asset purchases, which we actually announced at our November meeting, perhaps a few months sooner.”
The comments sent Wall Street into a further tizzy, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropping 600 points in midday trading.
Mr. Powell said that until the next meeting, the Fed will monitor a variety of factors that could change their thinking.
“It’s really about transmissibility, the ability of existing vaccines to address any new variant, and it’s about the severity of the disease once it’s contracted,” he told lawmakers.
Experts told him they will “know quite a bit about those answers within about a month. We’ll know something, though, within a week or 10 days, and then and only then can we make an assessment of what the impact would be on the economy,” Mr. Powell testified. “For now it’s a risk. It’s a risk to the baseline, it’s not really baked into our forecast.”