But, while drug companies including Moderna and Pfizer are already working on omicron-specific vaccines, he warned that it could be months before big pharma can produce these at scale.
“[Moderna] and Pfizer cannot get a billion doses next week. The maths doesn’t work. But could we get the billion doses out by the summer? Sure,” said Mr Bancel, estimating that Moderna could produce between two and three billion doses in 2022.
However, a complete shift to an omicron-specific vaccine could backfire when other variants are still in circulation, he added.
Mr Bancel’s comments, which come after the World Health Organization said omicron poses a “very high risk”, set off alarm bells across financial markets on Tuesday after an already turbulent week.
Crude oil futures shed more than a dollar, the Australian currency hit a year low, and Nikkei gave up gains as Mr Bancel’s comments spurred fears that vaccine resistance could lead to more sickness and hospitalisations, unravelling remarks by Joe Biden, the US president, that had helped calm the markets.
‘Cause for concern, not panic’
Mr Biden on Monday called the new variant a “cause for concern, not panic” and said the United States’ medical experts “believe that the vaccines will continue to provide a degree of protection against severe disease”.
On Monday, Pfizer’s chief executive, Albert Bourla, also said he would be surprised if the effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines drops to “very, very, very low” levels.
“I don’t think that the result will be that the vaccines don’t protect,” Mr Bourla told the US business news channel CNBC. “I don’t know if it will be equally effective at 95 plus per cent against the omicron. But I will be very surprised if we are very, very, very low.”
Other public health experts have also urged calm until more data is available, while Dr Ashish K Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, said omicron will not push the world back to square one.
“We have lots of tests that’ll detect omicron, we have therapies that’ll work,” he wrote on Twitter. “Our vaccines MAY take a hit but will still provide some (maybe a lot) protection. We are in a MUCH better place – this isn’t March 2020.”
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