Moderna CEO sees likely need for COVID booster for high-risk groups, eyes flu market

Moderna (MRNA) has its sights set on 2022 and beyond, even as it continues to produce doses for its COVID-19 vaccine this year.

CEO Stephane Bancel told Yahoo Finance Wednesday that governments are now focused on booster shots for next year, even though it unclear what type of booster shot will be needed — or when it will be needed — as worries surface over emerging variants. 

The pandemic still continues to claim casualties around the world, challenging efforts by the U.S., Britain and Israel, who have inoculated their citizens at an impressive pace.

"Discussions now are really turning to 2022, and governments being worried about boosts," Bancel said.

The company announced its vaccine protects up to six months at least, with 90% efficacy, with more months of followup planned to understand just how long protection from two doses lasts.

However, even with such strong protection, Bancel is confident a booster of some sort will be needed. The company is currently working on a few options, including a shot that targets the B.1.351 variant of the coronavirus, which originated in South Africa.

"We believe especially people at high risk should get a boost in the fall, and we want to make sure we have the best possible boost," Bancel said.

The news of Moderna's protection comes on the heels of similar results from Pfizer (PFE)/BioNTech (BNTX), and sets up a bull case for mRNA-based vaccines. Both Pfizer and Moderna's shares jumped Tuesday after Johnson & Johnson's (JNJ) vaccine was halted, due to isolated concerns about blood clots in women.

That has started to worry some countries — especially as AstraZeneca's (AZN) vaccine, which uses a similar platform as J&J — also contends with similar concerns.

"Indeed governments around the world are placing a lot of phone calls," Bancel told Yahoo Finance.

For the immediate future, the rising cases globally is causing concern over the need for boosters, especially for the southern hemisphere which is now going into its winter months, he said.

Bancel believes the next couple of years will be a strong "boost market" for vaccines, where governments will place bet with high efficacy vaccines, like Moderna's, moving forward.

Don't forget the flu

Moderna is also pursuing a combination flu and COVID-19 vaccine, with trials set to start this year. 

It's not the only company preparing to do so, as the messenger RNA platform is now being viewed more favorably during the pandemic.

The trajectory has set the stage for other products in the pipeline to move forward. That includes niche diseases, as well as a personalized cancer vaccine in partnership with Merck (MRK).

But even with a starting date this year, the company does not expect to mimic the breakneck development speed seen during the coronavirus crisis, nor does Moderna expect an emergency use authorization that helped accelerate the COVID inoculation.

"We should not anticipate to be able to go as fast as we did last year with COVID," Bancel said.

Regulatory authorities "did a lot of extraordinary things" for the COVID-19 vaccines, and Moderna will not rush approval for a vaccine in an already saturated market, the CEO said.

"I don't think the FDA will even consider an EUA for a flu vaccine," Bancel said, adding the company wouldn't even consider asking for one.

In fact, the trajectory for such a vaccine would likely be around five years, Bancel speculated.

More from Anjalee:

  • Novavax CEO: If FDA waits for US data, 'the lag will be a couple of months' for its vaccine

  • China, Russia playing 'greater-than-expected' roles in global pandemic response

  • Biden COVID-19 adviser: Vaccine news is great, but we still have a ways to go

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