An omicron-specific vaccine is on the way — and according to Moderna's top doctor, it'll likely become the Covid immunization you get alongside your flu shot each year.
Both Moderna and Pfizer are in the midst of clinical trials for vaccines designed to combat Covid's omicron variant, less than two months after the first omicron case hit the U.S. Last week, Moderna announced that it had entered Phase 2 of its trial, and had already given out its first dose to a human participant.
These shots aren't intended to be a quick fix: They probably won't be ready for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for months, meaning unvaccinated or un-boosted people shouldn't wait around for their arrival. Standard Covid boosters from both Pfizer and Moderna are 90% effective against hospitalizations from omicron infections, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data published last week.
Rather, the omicron-specific vaccines are meant as a long-term tool against Covid — because both omicron and Covid's delta variant are likely to stick around for a while as endemic virus strains, Moderna chief medical officer Dr. Paul Burton tells CNBC Make It.
"In the fall of 2022, delta is probably still going to be here, it's very dangerous," Burton says. And "omicron is going to still be here, it's dangerous because of the number of people it can infect."
Since December, omicron has rapidly replaced delta as the country's dominant Covid variant, reaching a single-day record of nearly 1.5 million new cases on Jan. 11. And while the current vaccine-and-booster regimens protect against hospitalizations from omicron infections, they don't protect nearly as well against the infections themselves.
In December, a Danish study found that two doses of Moderna's vaccine were 36.7% effective against omicron, compared with 55.2% for Pfizer. Those numbers quickly dropped over the next five months — and a third Pfizer dose administered 14 to 44 days after the second shot only restored protection to 56.4% in people aged 60 or older.
"We see that the protection is lower and decreases faster against omicron than against the delta variant after a primary vaccination course," Palle Valentiner-Branth, one of the study's author, told Reuters.
Omicron-specific vaccines will provide more protection against the highly contagious variant, which could circulate for some time, Burton says. "Omicron, I would say, is here to stay," he says. "I think cases will come down, but it's going to be around."
Experts also warn that delta — which is less transmissible, but leads to more severe symptoms — is still circulating, and will keep coexisting with omicron once Covid turns from pandemic to endemic. But Burton says a delta-specific vaccine is unnecessary: Moderna's standard Covid vaccine, also known as mRNA-1273, already provides "fantastic protection" against delta, he says.
"1273 protects you against the original strain, which we really don't hear about much anymore, and gives you great protection against delta," Burton says, noting that several independent studies over the last six months have backed up those claims.
For example, in a study published on Dec. 15 in The British Medical Journal, researchers found two doses of Moderna's Covid vaccine were 94% effective against delta infections in the first two months after vaccination, and 80% effective after six months. Protection against hospitalization also remained high, at 98%.
By comparison, in a peer-reviewed observational study funded by Pfizer and published in October, Pfizer's Covid vaccine was 93% effective against delta a month after the second dose, but only 53% effective after four months. Its protection against delta-related hospitalization also remained high, at 93%.