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Moderna targets autumn release for Omicron vaccine

Moderna has said up to 1.7bn people at high risk from Covid-19 would benefit from annual booster shots, as it prioritises developing a new jab targeting the fast-spreading Omicron variant to be released in the autumn.

The US drugmaker said demand for a bivalent booster could lift sales of its Covid jab in the second half of the year. The booster works by stimulating an immune response against two different antigens, which in this case would be the original wild type strain of Covid-19 as well as the mutations present in the Omicron variant.

Moderna maintained its forecast for $21bn in vaccine sales this year despite evidence of a slowdown in global demand for inoculations and said its Omicron booster was its lead candidate out of three new bivalent jabs under evaluation. First data from clinical trials of the Omicron booster candidate would be available in June, the company added.

“We think it will be the bivalent Omicron containing booster for this year. For 2023 plus, we would expect to continue to update the bivalent platform to reflect the then dominant or then at risk circulating strains of the variant,” said Stephen Hoge, president of Moderna.

He said the company’s objective was to produce a Covid booster shot that provided at least six months of protection, which would be similar to annual flu jabs. In the northern hemisphere, you would get boosted in October and this would cover you through the early part of spring when transmission subsides, said Hoge.

Pfizer is also pushing ahead with plans to develop an annual booster shot that can provide better protection against new variants but has acknowledged growing vaccine fatigue among the public. Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla told analysts this week that people were “tired of the repeated booster” and it is very important to develop an annual vaccine. “It’s not technically easy to achieve,” he added.

Experts remain divided on whether annual boosters targeting new variants will be required to combat Covid, with some noting that existing vaccines continue to offer strong protection against severe disease and hospitalisation. The US Food and Drug Administration will hold a meeting in June to discuss the nation’s booster strategy and whether bivalent vaccines should be approved before the autumn.

David Dowdy, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, said current vaccines remained extremely effective, but it made sense to target boosters to the dominant strain of the virus, which is currently Omicron.

“The virus is evolving, our vaccines should evolve as well,” he said. “The beauty of a bivalent vaccine would be that it keeps a product that we know works and adds a product that is tailored to the current virus.”

Moderna has achieved phenomenal success by launching a Covid vaccine based on mRNA technology but now faces a challenge of growing overall sales while the pandemic enters an endemic phase. And there is plenty of evidence that the pace of inoculations is slowing, with Airfinity, a health data analytics group, reporting last month that demand for Covid jabs had halved between January and mid-March.

Moderna flagged a potential risk to its $21bn vaccine sales forecast if Covax, an international body set up to deliver Covid jabs to low and middle nations, failed to confirm previous orders. But it said demand could be higher if the US and other nations purchased new bivalent boosters.

Moderna reported earnings per share of $8.58 for the first quarter of 2022, compared with $2.84 for the same period in 2021. Total revenues were $6.1bn, compared with $1.9bn for the same period in 2021.

This topped analysts’ forecasts for earnings of $5.21 per share and revenues of $4.62bn, according to Refinitiv.

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