As the world assesses the threat posed by the COVID-19 omicron variant, two top companies producing pandemic drugs and vaccines have warned that their current offerings may not be effective against the variant.
On Tuesday, Regeneron sounded (PDF) a disquieting alarm bell, saying its successful COVID-19 antibody treatment may not work against the elusive new strain. For his part, Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel predicted a “material drop” in mRNA vaccine efficacy.
“I think it’s going to be a material drop,” Bancel told the Financial Times of the reduced efficacy current vaccines will have against the variant. “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.’”
Pfizer and BioNTech have said they could adapt a variant-specific vaccine within six weeks and ship batches within 100 days. Moderna said it could have a new vaccine available early next year, but Bancel said on Tuesday that it would take several months for the new shot to be produced at scale.
“[Moderna] and Pfizer cannot get a billion doses next week. The math doesn’t work. But could we get the billion doses out by the summer? Sure,” Bancel told the FT, adding that that it could produce between 2 and 3 billion doses in 2022.
As for Regeneron, the company said in a Tuesday statement that the “mutations present in the omicron variant indicate that there may be reduced neutralization activity of both vaccine-induced and monoclonal antibody-conveyed immunity.” The declaration is based on prior “in vitro analyses and structural modeling,” Regeneron said, adding that it has not performed any testing on omicron’s resistance to vaccine- or antibody-induced immunity.
Omicron was first detected in South Africa and has since been observed in more than a dozen other countries globally. On Friday, the World Health Organization classified omicron as a “variant of concern.”
“We shouldn’t need another wake-up call,” Tedros Adhanom, the director of the WHO, said. “We should all be wide awake to the threat of this virus.”
RBC Capital Markets addressed the variant in a conference call with two epidemiological experts. RBC compared the emergence of omicron to the delta variant, which progressed slowly in June but was surging by August.
“Omicron is potentially very concerning,” the analysts wrote in a note to investors, while cautioning that much more information needs to be gathered to understand its “impact on individual morbidity and mortality.”
“We believe the emergence of omicron reminds that the road to normalcy will inevitably have fits and starts and COVID-19 will remain an important force for some time, but we continue to believe the worst of COVID-19’s dominance is likely behind us,” the analysts wrote.
Antibody sales have provided a huge boost to Regeneron. In the second quarter of this year, the company reported sales of $2.59 billion, which was more than the entire revenue figure the company generated in the previous quarter.
Regeneron says that it has other antibody candidates in the pipeline that have the potential to be effective against the omicron variant. One antibody therapy is in clinical trials, with others nearing clinical readiness.