Moderna working with world health leaders on Covid booster for this fall that targets omicron, CEO says

Moderna is working on a booster shot that will target the omicron variant of Covid for this fall as nations around the world prepare to distribute annual vaccinations against the virus.

“We are discussing with public health leaders around the world to decide what we think is the best strategy for the potential booster for the fall of 2022. We believe it will contain omicron,” CEO Stephane Bancel told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Monday.

Bancel said the omicron-specific booster will enter clinical trials soon, and Moderna is discussing whether the shot needs to contain any other components to fight the virus.

“We need to be careful to try to stay ahead of a virus and not behind the virus,” he said.

Moderna has signed advanced purchase agreements with upfront payments worth $18.5 billion with the United Kingdom, South Korea and Switzerland recently ordering shots for this fall. Bancel said the company can supply 2 billion to 3 billion booster doses this year.

“There are discussions ongoing on a daily basis. We want to be ready with the best product possible for the fall of ’22,” Bancel said.

Real-world data from the United Kingdom has shown that boosters are up to 75% effective at protecting against symptomatic infection from omicron, according to a recent study from the U.K. Health Security Agency.

The original two-dose vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer, on the other hand, are only about 10% effective at preventing symptomatic infection 20 weeks after the second dose, according to the study. However, the original two doses still provide good protection against severe illness.

The world is currently suffering from an unprecedented wave of infection due to omicron, which has dozens of mutations that allow it to avoid the immune protection induced by the original shots. The World Health Organization has said omicron is spreading faster than any other previous variant of the virus.

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The WHO has set a goal of vaccinating 70% of every nation’s population by the middle of this year. The global health body has been critical of wealthy countries rolling out broad booster campaigns, urging world leaders to focus on making sure as many people as possible around the globe, particularly in low-income nations, have received the initial shots.

Bancel said the supply of vaccines was constrained for most of 2021 but that is no longer the case. The main challenge now is distribution, or actually getting those shots into people’s arms. He said Moderna had between 50 million and 100 million doses waiting for shipment to low-income countries on any given day in November.

“There’s been a lot of issues on the distribution and deployment of those vaccines,” Bancel said.

The Moderna CEO said the African Union decided to turn down 60 million doses the company reserved for the continent for the second quarter.

“The reason for that is between the COVAX orders, the donations from Europe, the donations from China, the donations from the U.S. government. They have way more vaccine that they need to get to the 70% vaccination rates in those countries,” Bancel said.

COVAX is an international initiative led by the WHO and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations to speed up the manufacture and development of Covid vaccines and guarantee equal access for countries around the world.