Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel on Monday trumpeted new data showing his company’s vaccine remains effective in battling new coronavirus variants, even as he painted a long road ahead in the war against the pandemic.
The biotech firm’s study showed what it called “protective” immune responses to both the variant first documented in the U.K. (B.1.1.7) and the variant seen in South Africa (B.1.351).
Yet Bancel gave a stark assessment of the pandemic, saying there is good reason to expect a need for ongoing booster shots to protect against mutations that could propagate other variants of SARS-Cov-2, the virus behind the global COVID-19 outbreak.
“I believe SARS-Cov-2 is going to stay with humans forever,” Bancel said in an interview with Yahoo Finance Live. “We're going to have to have boosts adapted to a virus, like we have for flu. It's the same thing, they are both mRNA viruses, and we're going to have to live with it forever.”
The company announced Monday it was also beginning a test of an additional booster dose of its vaccine, out of an abundance of caution to potentially strengthen the immune response against emerging strains.
Bancel noted that while the original two-dose vaccine did, in fact, preserve a protective response against the South African strain, with neutralizing antibodies diminished six-fold relative to prior variants.
Nonetheless, Bancel said the vaccine still delivered a stronger immune response relative to what would be expected in patients contracting COVID-19, and the company downplayed fears that its vaccine would become ineffective against the newer strains.
Looking ahead, Bancel stressed the importance the booster shot dose, given production capacity constraints already stretched thin amid deliveries of its two-dose vaccine.
“The big question with the boost is going to be the dose,” he said. “Do you need 25 or 50 or 100 micrograms? The current product that is authorized by the FDA is 100 micrograms, twice: A prime and a boost.”
He reaffirmed Moderna’s original goal to deliver 100 million vaccine doses to the U.S. by March as planned. However, what studies come to show on booster dosing could loom large when it comes to keeping ahead of future variants.
“If a dose was 50 or 25 micrograms, which is possible because your immune system is already prepared, you might not need to have a big increase of capacity,” he said.
Setting the ‘bar for success’
Of course, the pandemic future depends on a number of factors. Among the most pressing questions are the slow rollout of vaccines for the public and the timing of other vaccine approvals — including Johnson & Johnson’s (JNJ) vaccine candidate, which may come within the next two weeks.
Bancel said another vaccine candidate joining the effort being led by Moderna and Pfizer (PFE) could help shift his company’s capacity focus towards boosters for problematic variants in the fall.
“I hope the Johnson & Johnson vaccine [comes] soon,” he said, noting that Moderna’s mRNA vaccine technology has led to a faster approval process than some others.
“Some technologies will not be able to go fast enough. Think about it, some of the older technology they're quoting, they have said that they won't have a vaccine until the end of the year,” he speculated.
As Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, recently observed, the virus is expected to continue spreading and mutating for quite some time while vaccine doses are administered. That makes controlling the virus a first step, but quite a distance from completely wiping it out.
“I don’t believe we should start setting elimination or eradication of this virus as the bar for success,” Bancel told Yahoo Finance. “The bar for success is reducing the capacity of this virus to kill, to put people in hospital, to destroy our economic (and) social lives.”
Zack Guzman is an anchor for Yahoo Finance Live as well as a senior writer covering entrepreneurship, cannabis, startups, and breaking news at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter @zGuz.