In a concerning sign for pandemic watchers, Moderna’s chief executive has indicated that current COVID-19 vaccines could prove far less effective in fighting the Omicron variant of the potentially deadly contagion.
Stéphane Bancel, the company’s CEO, made the comments during a recent interview with the Financial Times. He told the newspaper the high number of Omicron mutations on the spike protein and the quick spread of the variant in South Africa suggests that the vaccines may need to be modified in 2022.
“There is no world, I think, where [the effectiveness] is the same level ... we had with [the] Delta [variant],” Bancel told the 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’s comments came as President Biden said Monday that the emergence of the Omicron variant should be “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic” as he urged people to get their vaccinations and boosters to protect themselves.
“We have the best vaccine in the world, the best medicines, the best scientists, and we’re learning more every single day. And we’ll fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions and speed, not chaos and confusion,” he said at a White House news conference.
“We have more tools today to fight the variant than we’ve ever had before,” Biden said. “You have to get your vaccine — you have to get the shot, you have to get the booster.”
The Omicron variant, first reported by scientists in South Africa last week, has sent chills around the world because its numerous mutations raise the specter that it might be more transmissible, might cause more severe disease, and might evade the protection provided by vaccines or prior infection. A number of countries, including the United States, have imposed travel restrictions on South Africa and other countries in the region. Japan, Israel, and Morocco have banned foreign visitors entirely.
Biden said Monday that officials believe that the current vaccines “will continue to provide a degree of protection” against severe COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
In the sit-down with the Financial Times, Bancel said there’s a surplus of vaccines earmarked for Africa and that tens of millions of Moderna jabs were sitting in warehouses because Covax, a group tasked with supplying poor nations, or individual governments hadn’t taken delivery of them.
“We are running out of space,” Bancel said. “It’s because either they don’t have customs documents, or they don’t have fridge space, or because the ability to get doses in arms is a challenge.”
Material from Globe wire services and prior Globe stories was used in this report.