As cases of the Omicron variant surge in the United States, Moderna chief executive Stéphane Bancel said Monday that the company is still working on a new version of its COVID-19 vaccine, but it wouldn’t be available until the fall.
Bancel said the Cambridge biotech is continuing to advance a booster candidate that is specific to the Omicron variant, along with a booster that is tailored to multiple variants. He said Moderna is working closely with scientists and public health leaders around the world to identity what variants would be important to include in a new version of the vaccine.
“We think, given that Omicron is really becoming the dominant variant everywhere, that providing an Omicron [component] in the potential fall 2022 vaccine ... is going to be important,” he said during a presentation at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, which is being held virtually.
But he also said that the company has not yet decided on which booster version it will pursue, and that it will continue to analyze real-world data on how its original vaccine is performing.
“We could, of course, keep making the current vaccine,” Bancel said.
Meantime, Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla said Monday on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” that the company’s Omicron booster would be “ready” for the public in March. But he said it is not clear whether the additional dose is needed.
As the companies chart their booster plans, parents are still waiting for a vaccine for children under 5 years old. Pfizer said in December that its vaccine for children age 2 to 4 failed to provide enough protection in an early study. The company said it now plans to evaluate using three doses instead of two.
If the study is successful, Pfizer could apply for emergency use authorization for children 6 months to under 5 years of age in the first half of the year.
Bancel said Monday that Moderna’s data for testing on younger children are imminent, though it is not clear when the vaccine would be ready.
“We should get very soon data in the younger children that do not have access to the vaccine today,” he said on “Squawk Box.” “We [are] of course in... discussions with the FDA several times a week.”
Moderna expects to make as many as 3 billion booster doses in 2022. The company said it has purchase agreements for its COVID-19 vaccine worth $18.5 billion this year, up from a previous estimate of $17 billion made during a November earnings call.
Bancel expressed caution about the need for an annual COVID booster, saying it may only be necessary for people over 50, those who are at high risk, and health care workers.
“Will 25-year-olds who are healthy want or need an annual booster? I think it’s too early to tell.... Maybe every two years or four years,” he said.
He said Moderna’s top priority in 2022 is to work on what it calls a “pan-respiratory annual booster vaccine,” which would target several respiratory diseases. Bancel said that many governments have already expressed interest in a single vaccine for COVID-19 and the flu, since they worry it will be difficult to compel people to get both shots every winter.
“We want to provide a single-dose annual booster so that humans don’t get sick, hospitalized, or die of respiratory viruses,” he said. “We think this is within reach, and we won’t stop until this goal is achieved.”