Moderna sees 1-in-5 odds of dangerous future COVID variant

Chances are roughly one in five that new COVID-19 variants will arise that are more dangerous than the current versions, Moderna’s chief executive said.

The more likely scenario is that vulnerable people, such as the elderly and immunocompromised, will need annual boosters for protection against strains that are similar in virulence to omicron, Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said Thursday in an interview with Bloomberg TV. The CEO spoke on the day of a company event detailing its research and progress with messenger RNA vaccines.

Moderna is working to reassure investors about its longer-term growth prospects as the new cases decline following the winter spread of highly transmissible omicron. However, omicron’s BA.2 subvariant continues to circulate, leading to concerns about a resurgence and the emergence of new strains of the virus with greater power to infect and sicken.

“I think there’s an 80% chance that the variants that we’re going to see in the future are manageable from a severity standpoint and vaccine production,” Bancel said in the interview. “But I think we should always be very cautious, because there’s a 20% chance that something happens in some of the new variants that is very virulent.”

Moderna shares fell 2% in early trading. Following a rapid ascent that began in 2002, they’ve lost almost a third of their value since the beginning of the year amid waning pandemic concerns.

Moderna has signed deals for $21 billion in 2022 vaccine sales, up from $19 billion announced in February, according to a statement Thursday. The company also said discussions for additional 2022 and 2023 orders are ongoing with countries around the world, including the U.S.

On Wednesday, Moderna said it would apply for clearance for its COVID vaccine in kids under 6 after the shot generated strong immune responses in a big pediatric trial. Gaining clearance for younger children could represent another opportunity for Moderna, as rival partners Pfizer and BioNTech have hit study setbacks.

Bancel said that authorization of Moderna’s vaccine in very young children is more likely to come first in the U.K. or other countries abroad. Clearance in young children could take a bit more time in the U.S., he said, where Moderna’s vaccine isn’t yet cleared for children of any age.

During Thursday’s virtual investor meeting, Moderna said that interim data from a mid-stage trial of its first influenza vaccine indicated it was safe and generated an immune response. The results suggest the experimental flu shot may be superior to existing vaccines for influenza A, the strain accounting for most adult case, officials said. The company also said it expects its combination influenza and COVID vaccine to begin human trials this year.

“I believe we’re going to get to a very high efficacy flu shot on the market,” Bancel said on Bloomberg TV.

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