A Moderna official on COVID vaccines for kids, omicron-specific shot, waiving patents

Moderna and Pfizer announced they are moving forward with trials of a new booster designed to guard specifically against omicron. This comes as the CDC reported Thursday that a third shot of either of those vaccines substantially reduced the risk of hospitalizations among people with weakened immune systems. Amna Nawaz speaks with a top Moderna scientist about several key vaccine questions.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The CDC reported today that a third shot of the Moderna or Pfizer COVID vaccines substantially reduced the risk of hospitalizations among people with weakened immune systems.

    This comes after both vaccine makers announced this week they are moving forward with clinical trials for new boosters designed to guard specifically against Omicron.

    Amna Nawaz is back with a look at some of these developments. She spoke earlier today with one of Moderna's top scientists.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dr. Paul Burton is the chief medical officer of Moderna. And he joins us now.

    Dr. Burton, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thank you for making the time.

  • Dr. Paul Burton, Chief Medical Officer, Moderna:

    Thank you. Thank you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let's begin with vaccines and young kids, because this is on a lot of people's minds right now.

    Parents of kids under the age of 5 are really struggling, worried about how to keep their kids and families safe. A couple of weeks ago, Moderna had announced you're going to share efficacy data on your vaccine for kids aged 2 to 5 by March.

    So, should we take that to mean that parents shouldn't expect a Moderna vaccine for those young kids anytime before March?

  • Dr. Paul Burton:

    Well, so look, first of all, I share those sentiments. Certainly, with Omicron, those little kids, 2-to-5-year-olds have been disproportionately impacted and affected.

    And it's an unmet need. You know, we need a good vaccine for them. We are on track to have data, as you say, by March. We will get that to regulators as soon as we possibly can afterwards. And the data that we have had in older children has been very reassuring.

    It shows excellent effectiveness. So I would be hopeful, we would be hopeful that the data from that study will be the same. And then, obviously, my R&D colleagues and the rest of the company will work with regulators to talk to the FDA and see how we can now get this approved.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But that timeline means that no time before March should they expect that from Moderna, correct?

  • Dr. Paul Burton:

    I think that is a fair assessment, yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I'd like to ask you about Omicron specifically as well.

    You have talked about making an Omicron-specific booster available later this year. I believe clinical trials for that have just started. I guess the question is, why would those boosters be available or be necessary even later this year?

    Do you believe that Omicron is going to continue to circulate for many more months?

  • Dr. Paul Burton:

    I think there's a couple of things.

    We presented some data in "The New England Journal of Medicine" on Wednesday evening that showed that, while there is still protection, there is waning of effect, waning of antibody levels around six months after a booster.

    I would also say it's clear to us now that Delta is still going to be here, Omicron is still going to be here. There's even now a stealth variant of Omicron. So, I think, as the leader in mRNA, as the leaders in COVID, 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.

    You know, it's our responsibility to make that, provide that insurance.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You're saying this is something that Americans should expect to deal with for many months ahead?

  • Dr. Paul Burton:

    We believe so.

    I mean, we're not going to eradicate the virus. Omicron may go down in numbers. We — as we go into spring and summer, people get outside, maybe we can see a reduction in cases. But, think, we have had days where a million, a million-and-a-half Americans have been infected. Nearly 4,000 people a day have died in recent weeks.

    We have unprecedented levels of hospitalization today. While it may come down, I think it's proven time and time again that this is a virus that can take really radical steps of evolution and surprise us. So I would predict that we will need a booster dose just to keep everybody safe and protected in the fall of 2022.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Knowing what we know now at this point, with the waning efficacy, is it fair to say people shouldn't consider themselves fully vaccinated unless they have three shots, rather than just two?

  • Dr. Paul Burton:

    I would agree.

    I think that is what will provide maximal protection against death and hospitalization, and certainly against infection, with Omicron and with COVID in general.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I think roughly half of the global population now is vaccinated. But, as you know, in those low-income countries, the numbers are really abysmal.

    It's estimated about one out of every 10 people have just had their first shot, and many people will point to manufacturers like you refusing to waive the patents for those vaccines as part of the reason that gap perpetuates and persists, right? They say it limits manufacturing, it keeps prices artificially high. So, why not waive those patents?

  • Dr. Paul Burton:

    Well, so, look, we have said that we certainly will not enforce any patents during this pandemic phase of the virus.

    I would also add that, in 2021, one out of the maybe 825 million doses of vaccine that we produced as Moderna, a quarter of those went to low- and middle-income countries. And we have committed to do another billion doses in 2022. We're actively looking to build our state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Africa that will provide for Africa 500 million doses.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Can I just clarify, though? When you say you won't enforce the patent, is that the same as waiving the patent rights?

  • Dr. Paul Burton:

    I think not, no.

    We have said that we will not enforce the patent during the pandemic phase. So, if other people want to produce the vaccine during this time period, we would not enforce our patent rights, not during the pandemic phase.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But does that mean that Moderna is doing anything to enable other countries to produce it or manufacture it themselves?

  • Dr. Paul Burton:

    Well, look, as I say, certainly, for Africa, we have committed to build and work with countries there to produce a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility that will produce vaccine doses for Africa in a country to be determined very soon.

    So, we are doing everything possible.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But when do you expect that facility to be up and running?

  • Dr. Paul Burton:

    I think we're still working. We're going to hopefully announce a country in coming weeks. And then we will work as fast as possible to actually get the facility up and running.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You have made billions of dollars on the sale of the vaccine, and mostly to wealthy nations.

    And there were numbers late last year, for those who track those vaccine shipments, that showed Moderna shipped a greater share of your doses to wealthy countries than any other vaccine manufacturer.

    So, what would you say to critics who point to those facts and that say Moderna has not done enough to help those low-income countries?

  • Dr. Paul Burton:

    As we now go into this next phase of the pandemic and hopefully into the endemic phase, we will continue to supply as much vaccine as we can to those low- and middle-income countries, and we will expand our manufacturing facilities in those countries as well.

    So we're working with governments, we're working with those regions, again, to do everything possible. But it's a very difficult situation to supply as many people as have been asking for our vaccine throughout last year.

    But I think we're in a better position now this year. We have learned a lot. And I think 2022 will see a new opportunity for us there.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Dr. Paul Burton, chief medical officer of Moderna.

    Dr. Burton, thank you for your time.

  • Dr. Paul Burton:

    Thank you.

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