Moderna’s concerns about Omicron outlook spark market slump

Published : 30 Nov 2021 10:14 PM | Updated : 30 Nov 2021 10:14 PM

Moderna's top executives reiterated that the Omicron variant's many mutations suggest new vaccines will be needed, triggering a drop in financial markets.

"The number of mutations on this virus are surprising," co-founder Noubar Afeyan said in a Bloomberg Television interview. "We have to take it for the serious threat that it poses."

At a time of uncertainty about Omicron's impact on the pandemic's course and world economies, the comments fueled a new round of concern. Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel, in an interview with the Financial Times, predicted a "material drop" in the existing shots' efficacy and damped expectations new ones could be ready soon. His definitiveness appeared to spook markets.

The Stoxx Europe 600 index fell about 1.5 per cent to almost a seven-week low and crude oil headed for the worst monthly loss this year.

In Singapore, the Straits Times Index saw its largest single-day drop in a year, falling 79.29 points or 2.5 per cent to close at 3,041.29.

Mr Bancel and Mr Afeyan effectively reiterated comments made by Moderna's chief medical officer Paul Burton during the weekend. The companies that bet on messenger RNA vaccines - BioNTech and its partner Pfizer as well as Moderna - have an advantage in that they can be swift to develop a new injection, just as they were the first to introduce vaccines at the end of last year.

But the new variant could offer Moderna a chance to catch up to the Pfizer-BioNTech effort, whose shot has turned into the best-selling pharmaceutical product of all time.

Moderna earlier this month warned that it would not hit its delivery targets, saying vaccine sales would be between US$15 billion and US$18 billion (S$20.5 billion and 24.6 billion) in 2021.

The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based biotech said last week that it has already been studying boosters that were designed to anticipate mutations such as those that have emerged in omicron, and will rapidly advance a candidate targeting this new strain specifically.

"We have a lot better weapons to fight back than we did 18 months ago," Mr Afeyan said, citing multi-variant vaccines that are already in clinical tests and may work better against omicron that the previous generation.

Meanwhile, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals's Covid-19 antibody treatment and other similar drugs could be less effective against the new Omicron coronavirus variant, the company said yesterday. The drugmaker said further analyses are ongoing to confirm and quantify this potential impact using the actual Omicron variant sequence.

Regeneron said analysis shows the individual mutations present in Omicron indicate "there may be reduced neutralisation activity of both vaccine-induced and monoclonal antibody conveyed immunity".

Research is still underway to determine if Omicron causes the same level of illness as older versions of the virus, if it can evade protection from vaccines and previous infections, and if it will be able to outcompete the existing strains as the pathogen continues to circulate throughout the world.

Moderna is striking a more pessimistic tone than Pfizer, with CEO Albert Bourla saying earlier in an interview with Bloomberg Television that it will be clear in two to three weeks how well its current shot holds up against Omicron - and even in a worst-case scenario he expects the existing formula will retain some efficacy.