Drugmaker Moderna, set off fresh alarm bells in financial markets on Tuesday with a warning that existing Coronavirus, COVID-19, vaccines would be less effective against the Omicron variant than they have been against the Delta variant.
Major European stock markets fell around 1.5 per cent in early trade, Tokyo’s Nikkei index closed down 1.6 per cent, and crude oil futures shed more than 3 per cent as comments by Moderna’s chief executive of Stephane Bancel’s spurred fears that vaccine resistance may prolong the pandemic.
Not left behind is the Australian dollar which hit a one-year low due to the same comments Bancel.
“There is no world, I think, where (the effectiveness) is the same level . . . we had with Delta,” Moderna chief told the Financial Times.
“I think it’s going to be a material drop. I just don’t know how much because we need to wait for the data.
“But all the scientists I’ve talked to . . . are like ‘this is not going to be good’,” Bancel said.
Balancing that, however, European Medicines Agency (EMA) executive director Emer Cooke told the European Parliament that even if the new variant becomes more widespread, existing vaccines will continue to provide protection.
Moderna did not reply to a Reuters request for comment or say when it expects to have data on the effectiveness of its vaccine on Omicron, which the World Health Organisation (WHO) says carries a very high risk of infection surges.
Bancel had earlier said on broadcaster CNBC that it could take months to begin shipping a vaccine designed for the new variant.
The WHO and scientists have also said it could take weeks to understand whether Omicron is likely to cause severe illness or escape protection against immunity induced by vaccines.
Cooke said that lab tests for “cross neutralisation” would take about two weeks.
If there were a need to change COVID-19 vaccines, new ones could be approved within three or four months, she added.
“Vaccination will likely still keep you out of the hospital,” said John Wherry, director of the Penn Institute for Immunology in Philadelphia.
Moderna and fellow drugmakers BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson are working on vaccines that specifically target Omicron in case existing shots are not effective against it.
Moderna has also been testing a higher dose of its existing booster.
Uncertainty about the new variant has triggered global alarm, with border closures casting a shadow over a nascent economic recovery from the two-year-old pandemic.
News of its emergence wiped roughly two trillion dollars off global stocks on Friday, but some calm had returned on Monday.
First detected in southern Africa a week ago, Omicron is known to have spread to over a dozen countries.
Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, confirmed its first case on Tuesday, in a traveller from Namibia.
Australia found that a person with Omicron had visited a busy shopping centre in Sydney while probably infectious.
Countries around the world have tightened border controls in an attempt to prevent a recurrence of last year’s strict lockdowns and steep economic downturns.
Britain and the United States have both pushed their booster programmes.
England also made face masks compulsory once again on Tuesday in shops and on public transport. International arrivals will have to self-isolate until they get a negative result in a PCR test for viral DNA.
Australia has delayed the reopening of its international borders by two weeks, less than 36 hours before foreign students and skilled migrants were to be allowed back.
In Germany, a hotspot, the average seven-day infection rate fell slightly for the first time in three weeks as officials considered imposing tougher measures.
In a boost for authorities, the Constitutional Court ruled that earlier lockdown measures had not violated children’s rights to schooling or other protected freedoms.