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Despite early projections that the latest surge in coronavirus cases might soon fizzle out, the chief medical officer for pharmaceutical giant Moderna predicted Thursday that the United States may still be contending with the omicron variant later this year, and that Americans may benefit from omicron-tailored booster shots.
Dr. Paul Burton told the PBS NewsHour’s chief correspondent and substitute anchor Amna Nawaz that the variant, which accounts for nearly all new infections in the U.S. and has dominated much of the world, will not vanish after the current surge in cases subsides.
“It’s on us, as Moderna, to make sure that we have a vaccine available that can cover omicron as well as delta and other variants,” Burton said.
Since November, when the World Health Organization alerted the global community about omicron, the variant has forced countries to rethink not only their outlook for the pandemic and how they’re responding, but about why getting to high levels of vaccination around the world remains key to gaining control.
Under omicron, with no vaccine yet available for the youngest children, Burton said “2- to 5-year-olds have been disproportionately impacted and affected, and it’s an unmet need.”
READ MORE: Nurse who got first authorized U.S. COVID vaccine: ‘We cannot continue to live like this’
In the U.S., where vaccines first became available in December 2020, more than 100 million people remain unvaccinated and face heightened risk of severe illness, hospitalization and death. (This week, roughly 2,200 people died every day, largely due to omicron infections, according to Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who directs the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.) In many countries around the world, vaccine supply and access are still out of reach, while vaccine manufacturers, including Moderna, have donated hundreds of millions of doses worldwide and also generated billions of dollars in profits.
Without wider vaccine protection in place, experts say the virus will continue to mutate and produce variants that could be more infectious than omicron itself, and the pandemic will remain far from over.
Here are three takeaways about how Moderna sees the challenges around developing vaccines for the youngest and most vulnerable populations, both in the U.S. and around the world, and how omicron is raising the stakes.
This week, Moderna and Pfizer, both leading producers of two-shot mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, launched trials to develop omicron-specific boosters.
In a letter published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, a team of researchers said the omicron variant weakens the strength of the Moderna vaccine’s protection against the virus. Some experts have criticized making vaccines tailored to particular variants, but Burton told Nawaz this evidence supports the need for an omicron-specific booster that could be available by this fall because “omicron is still going to be here.”
He said that the numbers – in cases, hospitalizations and deaths – may come down, but noted that, time and again, “this is a virus that can take really radical steps of evolution and surprise us.”
In the U.S., children under age 5 are not yet eligible for available COVID vaccines. Burton said that researchers at Moderna plan to have data ready for the Food and Drug Administration by March. At that point, federal regulators would need to vet the vaccine’s safety and efficacy data before deciding whether or not to authorize the vaccine for emergency use in some of the youngest children.
“The data that we’ve had in older children has been very reassuring. It shows excellent effectiveness, so I would be hopeful,” he said.
In December, Pfizer, said it needed to recalibrate its doses for younger children after clinical trials revealed insufficient protection against the virus in children between ages 2 and 5. Researchers are studying the efficacy of three doses instead of two in younger children.
In low-income countries, just one out of 10 individuals are estimated to have received their first vaccine dose so far – much lower rates than seen in high-income countries.
Burton said that Moderna will “continue to supply as much vaccine as we can” to low- and middle-income countries and to expand “manufacturing facilities in those countries as well.”
READ MORE: For countries with few vaccine doses, fighting COVID-19 is ‘a race from behind’
For now, to help improve global vaccine access, Burton said Moderna has chosen not to enforce its patent “during the pandemic phase” in case “other people want to produce the vaccine.” But the company has not gone so far as to waive the patents, which would enable more countries to make their own life-saving vaccines. Expanding vaccine access at this point in the pandemic, Burton said local distribution played a greater role than companies producing enough doses.
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Laura Santhanam is the Health Reporter and Coordinating Producer for Polling for the PBS NewsHour, where she has also worked as the Data Producer. Follow @LauraSanthanam
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