A new COVID variant that was first discovered in South Africa has scientists and officials around the world back on edge. Now deemed a "variant of concern" by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Omicron variant could potentially spread more easily than Delta—and that's not the only worry. Some virus experts have also warned that this new variant could be more likely to evade the body's immune response from both vaccination and natural infection than previous COVID variants due to a record number of mutations. Omicron has not yet been reported in the U.S., and it's still unclear how vaccine resistant it will be, but vaccine manufacturers are already getting ready to battle the variant.
During a Nov. 29 interview on CNBC's Squawk Box, Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel gave a sobering update on the company's fight against the Omicron variant, explaining that Moderna would not be able to develop and ship a vaccine that specifically targets this new variant for quite some time.
"It will be months before the Omicron-specific variant is ready to ship in massive quantities," Bancel said.
Paul Burton, Moderna's chief medical officer, gave a similar timeframe during a Nov. 28 interview on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show, per Insider. "If we have to make a brand new vaccine, I think that's going to be early 2022 before that's really going to be available in large quantities," he said.
On Nov. 26, Moderna announced that it would "rapidly advance" a new variant-specific vaccine candidate. According to the announcement, the vaccine manufacturer has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to create and advance new vaccine candidates to a clinical trial testing phase in around 60 to 90 days.
"From the beginning, we have said that as we seek to defeat the pandemic, it is imperative that we are proactive as the virus evolves. The mutations in the Omicron variant are concerning and for several days, we have been moving as fast as possible to execute our strategy to address this variant," Bancel said in a statement at the time.
There are steps that could be taken even sooner. Bancel said on Squawk Box that a higher 100-microgram dose of the company's booster shot could be ready much faster than a new vaccine. Right now, Moderna's booster shot is a 50-microgram, half-dose of its regular shot. "The higher dose could be done right away," he explained.
It will take some time for the company to decide whether it should increase the dosage of its existing booster. According to Bancel, Moderna believes the Omicron variant is highly infectious and is likely to have dropped vaccine effectiveness, but it will take at least two weeks to determine how much the variant's mutations might impact the vaccine's protective power.
"Depending on how much it dropped, we might decide on the one hand to give a higher dose of the current vaccine around the world to protect people—maybe people at very high risk, the immunocompromised, and the elderly should need a fourth dose," Bancel said. The company is also studying two multivalent booster candidates that were designed to anticipate the type of mutations that emerged in the Omicron variant, according to the company's Nov. 26 announcement.
Pfizer and BioNTech have discussed making an Omicron-specific vaccine as well. The two manufacturers behind the Pfizer vaccine said that they expect to be able to ship a new vaccine tailored to this variant in about 100 days if data shows that it needs to be reworked, Reuters reported.