Less than two weeks after authorities in South Africa alerted the world to the appearance of the heavily mutated Omicron, key questions about the variant remain unanswered. What has become increasingly clear over the weekend is that experts believe the variant will spread quickly across the globe, and that makers of messenger RNA-based vaccines aren’t confident the current versions of their vaccines will fully protect against it.
Speaking on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos on Sunday,
(ticker: MRNA) President Dr. Stephen Hoge said there is a “real risk that we’re going to see a decrease in effectiveness of the vaccines” due to Omicron, but he doesn’t know “how substantial” it will be.
Moderna stock dropped 13.5% Monday.
Data isn’t yet in on whether the currently approved vaccines work against the variant, or if Omicron is more or less deadly than earlier strains of the virus.
The comments were less pessimistic than those made by Hoge’s colleague, CEO Stéphane Bancel, in an interview with the Financial Times early last week which rocked the stock market.
Moderna has said that it is developing an Omicron-specific booster of its vaccine. Hoge said, however, that manufacturing the new vaccine would take time. “We could probably produce tens of millions of doses in the first quarter, but not hundreds,” Hoge said. “And it really wouldn’t be until the second quarter of next year that you’d be seeing those big step changes in terms of the number of doses made.”
In an interview with Barron’s published on Friday, Dr. Peter Marks, the senior official responsible for the review of Covid-19 vaccines at the Food and Drug Administration, set out one possible timeline that could have shots of updated vaccines going into arms in the U.S. by April, if Omicron-specific boosters are necessary.
Companies are already running various tests to determine whether their vaccines will work against Omicron.
(PFE) told Cowen analyst Steve Scala that results of its first lab test, which challenges the vaccine with what’s known as a pseudovirus, will be followed a week or two later by tests of the vaccine against the actual virus. Results from both tests should be available by the end of the month, the company noted.
“PFE anticipates that the results from these studies will not be black or white but instead there could be some degree of ambiguity,” the Cowen analyst wrote in a note published Monday. Pfizer told Scala that it could produce a billion doses of the updated vaccine per quarter.
Meanwhile, major questions about Omicron’s pathogenicity remain unanswered. “Thus far, it does not look like there’s a great degree of severity to it,” President Biden’s chief medical advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday. “But we have really got to be careful before we make any determinations that [Omicron] is less severe or it really doesn’t cause any severe illness comparable to Delta.”
European health authorities said that the European Union and European Economic Area together had a total of 182 Omicron cases so far, all of them either asymptomatic or mild in severity, with no deaths. The European Union’s European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, however, warned that the number of cases was still too low to determine whether the disease Omicron causes was different in severity than that caused by other strains.
“Given the pace of spread of Omicron, it is hard to imagine anyone in South Africa escaping infection in the next couple of months, and assuming the inevitable in terms of infection events already documented outside South Africa, it seems only a matter of time (weeks) before thousands of cases are being confirmed in other countries around the world,” wrote SVB Leerink analyst Dr. Geoffrey Porges in a note published Monday.
Porges wrote that, so far, early evidence about the pathogenicity of the variant remains encouraging. “It appears that hospitalizations are not increasing at anything like the increase in the number of diagnoses” in South Africa, Porges wrote. “All of this may not mean much – these observations are still very early in the latest wave of infections, and the pattern of disease could easily change with more time from the initial diagnosis of infection.”
Still, investors seemed to be taking some solace early Monday. The
Dow Jones Industrial Average
were up 1.4% and 0.6%, respectively.
More bits of insight into Omicron are likely to come over the coming weeks. And if last week’s roller coaster is any guide, investors could be in for a rocky end of the year.
Write to Josh Nathan-Kazis at email@example.com