Omicron-specific Covid vaccine could pave way for annual boosters

·4-min read
A vial in front of the Moderna logo - Dado Ruvic/Reuters
A vial in front of the Moderna logo - Dado Ruvic/Reuters

The first omicron-specific vaccine could be a “turning point” in the battle against Covid and open the door to annual boosters similar to yearly flu shots, Moderna has said.

The American manufacturer has been testing a two-in-one Covid vaccine for several months, which combines the original guise of the jab with the genetic code of omicron, the more transmissible strain that is currently dominant.

Data published on Wednesday by Moderna shows the bivalent – stimulating an immune response against two different antigens – vaccine gives just as good protection against omicron as the first jab did against the original strain of SARS-CoV-2, but will likely last longer.

Dr Paul Burton, Moderna’s chief medical officer, said the omicron jab produced “very high antibody levels” which he was confident “will translate into clinical protection against infection from any of the omicron family”.

He also believes that the long-lasting effectiveness of the new vaccine offers the first realistic possibility of moving to an annual booster jab.

Omicron emerged at the end of 2021 and led to a wave of infections in January, but new sub-variants called BA.4 and BA.5 have supplanted the original omicron and appear to be slightly more transmissible and pathogenic.

People boosted with the omicron-specific vaccine had high levels of antibodies in their blood, recording a geometric mean titre (GMT) score of 941.

Moderna’s original vaccine produced about 1,000 units against the wild form of the virus and anything above 400 “we consider gives good protection”, Dr Burton told reporters.

He added: “We think this is a strong, powerful antibody response and it is probably long-lasting. I think the conclusions are that boosting, or primary vaccination, with [the new vaccine] really could be a turning point in our fight against the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

“The antibody response is about 1,000 units overall and that will translate into clinical protection against infection from any of the omicron family.

“This combination of bringing the two together in a single vaccine gives you the breadth of cover, but also the longevity. That's why we think it should give rise to longer [protection] and I think could give us really the first option of getting a once-yearly shot.”

Dr Burton said the data indicated that the vaccine worked well against BA.4 and BA.5 as well as all other omicron forms.

Moderna will be sending the data to regulators in the UK, US and Europe “within days”, with the expectation of using the new vaccine in the autumn booster programme.

If authorised by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), the manufacturer is confident it can boost 10 million people in the next two months as “several hundred million doses” have already been made.

The Southern Hemisphere, where it is currently the virus-friendly season of winter, will likely get doses of the so-called 214 vaccine first, perhaps in August, before the Northern Hemisphere receives them in either late August or early September.

Dr Burton said conversations between Moderna and British health officials are already in process and there is “definite interest in 214”.

The jab was originally more than three times the size of Pfizer’s vaccine and was slightly more likely to lead to side-effects than the alternatives, but the dose was shrunk and the new trial data were “reassuring” and showed “good safety data”, said Dr Burton.

The company is hoping to pivot its entire Covid operation towards the new omicron-targeting jab. It is also hoping to have a Covid-flu combined vaccine ready by next winter, as well as a triple-threat jab combining Covid and flu with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) by the winter of 2024-25.

Deal struck for new vaccine centre

The news came as Moderna said it had struck a deal with the Government to establish a new vaccine innovation and technology centre in the UK.

Stéphane Bancel, the Moderna chief executive, said: “In the face of SARS-CoV-2’s continued evolution, we are very encouraged that mRNA-1273.214, our lead booster candidate for the autumn, has shown high neutralising titers against the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants, which represent an emergent threat to global public health.

“We will submit these data to regulators urgently and are preparing to supply our next generation bivalent booster starting in August, ahead of a potential rise in SARS-CoV-2 infections due to Omicron sub-variants in the early autumn.”

Penny Ward, visiting professor in pharmaceutical medicine at King’s College London, said: “As we head towards the autumn with omicron variants dominating the Covid infection landscape, it certainly makes sense to consider use of this new bivalent vaccine, if available, for the UK autumn Covid booster campaign.

“As ever, it would of course be helpful to see a full publication of the data so we can review the detailed information prior to prescribing this for our patients. That said, kudos to Moderna for taking this forward.”

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