Moderna's concerns about Omicron outlook spark market slump

Moderna Inc.’s top executives reiterated that the omicron variant’s many mutations suggest new vaccines will be needed, triggering a slump in financial markets. 

“The number of mutations on this virus are surprising,” co-founder Noubar Afeyan said in a Bloomberg Television interview.  “We have to take it for the serious threat that it poses.” 

At a time of uncertainty about omicron’s impact on the pandemic’s course and world economies, the comments fueled a new round of concern. Chief Executive Officer Stephane Bancel, in an interview with the Financial Times, predicted a “material drop” in the existing shots’ efficacy and damped expectations new ones could be ready soon. 

His definitiveness appeared to spook markets, with stocks in Asia retreating along with U.S. and European index futures and crude oil. 

Bancel and Afeyan effectively reiterated comments made by Moderna’s Chief Medical Officer Paul Burton during the weekend.

The companies that bet on messenger RNA vaccines -- BioNTech SE and its partner Pfizer Inc. as well as Moderna -- have an advantage in that they can be swift to develop a new injection, just as they were the first to introduce vaccines at the end of last year. 

But the new variant could offer Moderna a chance to catch up to the Pfizer-BioNTech effort, whose shot has turned into the best-selling pharmaceutical product of all time. Moderna earlier this month warned that it wouldn’t hit its delivery targets, saying vaccine sales would be between $15 billion and $18 billion in 2021.

The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based biotech said last week that it has already been studying boosters that were designed to anticipate mutations such as those that have emerged in omicron, and will rapidly advance a candidate targeting this new strain specifically.

“We have a lot better weapons to fight back than we did 18 months ago,” Afeyan said, citing multi-variant vaccines that are already in clinical tests and may work better against omicron that the previous generation. 

Research is still underway to determine if omicron causes the same level of illness as older versions of the virus, if it can evade protection from vaccines and previous infections, and if it will be able to outcompete the existing strains as the pathogen continues to circulate throughout the world. 

Moderna is striking a more pessimistic tone than Pfizer, with Chief Executive Officer Albert Bourla saying earlier in an interview with Bloomberg Television that it will be clear in two to three weeks how well its current shot holds up against omicron -- and even in a worst-case scenario he expects the existing formula will retain some efficacy. 

Bourla said Pfizer will be ready with a vaccine targeting omicron in 100 days, should it be necessary. 

Other vaccine makers including AstraZeneca Plc, Johnson & Johnson, Sinovac Biotech Ltd, CanSino Biologics Inc. and Japanese drugmaker Shionogi & Co have said they are working on the new variant.

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