With the initial Covid-19 vaccine rollout well underway, Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel and his team are already planning for future Covid-19 vaccination campaigns.
In a panel hosted by Pepperdine University on Monday evening, Bancel and former FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn discussed the road ahead for Covid-19 vaccines. While the current vaccines will be essential to rein in the pandemic and resume normal life, both speakers emphasized that the virus will continue to mutate and updated vaccines will likely be an important tool to control its future spread.
They warned that while the news may sound alarming, it is in fact very normal. Like the flu, Covid-19 is constantly mutating and just as it’s necessary to develop a new flu shot every year, so too is it possible that Covid-19 vaccines may become seasonal.
“My fear is that this is going to change from pandemic — a singular episode — to more endemic and we’re going to need, and I want to use this terminology really carefully, not a booster that is the same strains next year, but seasonally, as with influenza, a new vaccine that’s updated to the strains that are out there,” said Hahn.
Experts predict this will be necessary because until herd immunity is reached on a global scale, new variants will continue to emerge. So far data has shown that existing approved vaccines are effective against the UK variant, but pharmaceutical companies and the FDA are closely monitoring all variants and developing new vaccines blends to ensure vaccines continue to be effective.
Another reason future Covid-19 vaccines will likely be necessary is because people’s immunity will eventually wear off.
“The big question we will have, and we don’t have clinical data, we have to be patient and wait, is what happens in six months or nine months or a year after the vaccination, especially for somebody who’s immunocompromised?” said Bancel.
It’s currently unclear how dominant and widespread variants will become and how long immunity from current vaccines will last. However, the FDA and vaccine companies are striving to prepare for any scenario to ensure Covid-19 will not have the opportunity to spread widely again.
The mRNA technology used in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines has been shown capable of combining six different mRNA strains. This means that a potential future Covid-19 vaccine could be targeted against six different Covid-19 variants. Moderna has already begun testing a new booster vaccine based on the variant found in South Africa that may be more resistant to existing vaccines.
“Those variants are of concern until enough people on the planet are immunized, so then the virus has less opportunity to mutate,” said Bancel. “As soon as you start vaccinating the planet and boosting the planet, I think after maybe a year or two those variants will potentially evolve pretty quickly. I think then they will slow down in pace and we’re going to get to just a regular boost.”
Moderna is also currently looking at using mRNA technology to combine a flu vaccine and a seasonal variation Covid-19 vaccine into a single shot. If effective, such a vaccine has the potential to save thousands of lives every year.