Vaccine for Omicron Variant Could Take Months, Moderna CEO Warns

It will take months to develop and ship a new COVID vaccine targeting the Omicron variant, according to Stéphane Bancel, CEO of U.S. vaccine maker Moderna.

In an interview with CNBC on Monday, Bancel said that despite this, a higher 100-microgram dose of the company's booster shot could be ready much sooner.

"The higher dose could be done right away but it will be months before the Omicron-specific variant is ready to ship in massive quantities," Bancel told CNBC.

The World Health Organization has designated it a "variant of concern," with between 26 and 30 mutations on its spike protein that binds to human cells. It released a technical paper on Sunday.

Bancel said Moderna believes that the Omicron variant is highly infectious, but it will take at least two weeks to determine how the mutations will impact the efficacy of the current vaccines. He warned that it's "highly possible" that the vaccines might not provide as much protection against Omicron.

"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" he said.

The variant was first discovered by South African scientists, and it has been found in at least 15 countries, including Australia, Belgium, Botswana, Germany, Italy and Israel.

Bancel said he believed that the variant was already present in most countries.

"I believe most countries that have direct flights from South Africa in the last seven to 10 days already have cases in their country that they may not be aware of."

The WHO technical paper said the main uncertainties around the new variant were its transmissibility, how well vaccines protect against it and whether the variant is more or less severe than the other variants.

Following the identification of the Omicron variant, at least 44 countries, including the United States, the U.K, Canada, and Singapore acted to restrict travel from southern African countries, where the variant was first detected.

However, the South African doctor who first raised concern over the new variant has said that symptoms found so far were "mild."

Dr. Angelique Coetzee told The Telegraph she became aware of the variant when patients came to the hospital with unusual symptoms for COVID-19, such as high pulse rate and intense fatigue, but no loss of smell, a common symptom among the other variants of COVID.

Stephane Bancel Moderna
Then-French biotechnology group bioMérieux CEO Stéphane Bancel attends a press conference announcing the 2008 financial results of the group, on March 16, 2009 in Paris. The Moderna CEO said it would take months to clear a new COVID vaccine targeting the Omicron variant. Eric Piermont/Getty