(Yonhap Interview) Moderna prepares trilateral approach to confront omicron: executive

By Kim Han-joo

SEOUL, Dec. 6 (Yonhap) — U.S. biotech company Moderna Inc. is preparing three strategies to combat the omicron variant, which is more transmissible than previous strains of the COVID-19 virus, a company executive has said.

As the new omicron strain fuels fear around the world that the pandemic is regaining its momentum, makers of the world’s most-used COVID-19 vaccines are rushing to find solutions to problems regarding omicron’s severity, transmissibility and effectiveness against current vaccines.

“I think it is clear that omicron has higher transmission rate. That part, we are pretty sure of,” Randall N. Hyer, senior vice president of Moderna, said in a recent interview with Yonhap News Agency in Seoul. “In terms of effectiveness against (COVID-19) vaccines, we don’t know yet.”

The World Health Organization designated omicron as a “variant of concern,” saying it poses a “very high” global risk with a high likelihood of further transmission compared with earlier strains.

Last week, South Korea reported its first six cases of omicron variant infections, adding to woes that the new virus strain could exacerbate the pandemic as the country grapples with a spike in the number of cases.

Among a list of global pharmaceutical giants — Pfizer Inc., Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca — that revealed plans to address the threat posed by omicron, Moderna has provided the most detailed strategy to address the variant.

“We have three lines of defense (against the omicron variant) in parallel,” Hyer said. “Yet, we don’t know which one will be the most successful.”

Under the first strategy, Moderna has completed a safety and immunogenicity study of administering a high dose of its existing mRNA vaccine as a booster.

“We already have clinical data on boosters … we want to know how it works on omicron,” the senior executive said, adding the results of initial data are expected in the next two to three weeks.

The senior vice president said the second stage is studying two multivalent booster candidates in the clinic, which are designed to anticipate mutations that have emerged in the omicron variant.

The third strategy, currently pursued by Moderna and its rivals, is to develop omicron-tailored vaccines that can be administered as a booster shot following full vaccination.

The vaccine expert also said such booster vaccines can be administered with COVID-19 vaccines from other manufacturers, noting such a mix-and-match regimen is both effective and safe.

As to a question of the earliest timing on the results, Hyer said Moderna is moving as fast as it can with all three strategies equally in mind.

As a long-term approach, he said careful surveillance is important in fighting the pandemic, as the virus will continue to mutate.

“It’s clear that endemics are certainly distinctively possible,” he said, adding more study is needed to know whether omicron is more severe than previous ones despite the fact that a virus, in general, becomes less severe as it mutates.

As to rising concern over side effects of Moderna’s mRNA vaccines, including some reports of heart problems, the executive assured that the biotech company takes the safety and effectiveness of its products very seriously.

Reports have been made globally, with drug authorities in both the U.S. and Europe looking into cases of diseases, such as myocarditis and pericarditis, following the administration of Moderna vaccines.

“Developing mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 sets the record, both in volume, speed and thoroughness. It’s certainly the best vaccine study we have ever done.”

The vaccine expert also sympathized with the general public’s fear over vaccination, urging people to ask more questions to both vaccine makers and government officials so that they can determine the necessity to get fully vaccinated and get booster shots.

“I think people need to get information. And getting vaccinated is important,” he said “This is a severe disease that has severe consequences.”