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COVID digest: Moderna CEO warns omicron could dodge vaccines

November 30, 2021

The vaccine-maker's CEO says existing COVID-19 vaccines are unlikely to be as effective against omicron. Meanwhile, Japan detected its first case of the variant. Follow DW for the latest.

Paramedic Karen McIntyre vaccinates Caroline Bagnato at her home with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine
Immunity gained from vaccine shots already administered may be compromised, the says Moderna's CEOImage: Carlos Osorio/REUTERS

Moderna's chief executive predicts that existing vaccines could be be less effective at tackling the omicron variant than earlier variants of the coronavirus. 

Stephane Bancel warned it would take months before drug companies can produce new variant-specific jabs at scale.

Bancel said the high number of mutations on the spike protein of the latest variant may mean it isn't picked up by vaccine-induced antibodies.

"There is no world, I think, where [the effectiveness] is the same level... we had with Delta," Bancel told the Financial Times newspaper.

"I think it's going to be a material drop. I just don't know how much because we need to wait for the data. But all the scientists I've talked to... are like 'this is not going to be good.'"

Bancel said his company could deliver between two billion and three billion doses in 2022. However, he said it would be dangerous to shift all production to an omicron-specific shot with other viral strains still in circulation.

The Moderna chief executive's comments underline fears that vaccine resistance in omicron could prolong the pandemic, leading to more sickness and hospitalizations.

Financial markets reacted rapidly, with the Japanese Nikkei closing lower and European and US futures shedding value.

News of omicron's emergence had already wiped roughly $2 trillion off the value of global stocks on Friday. Although there was a recovery during Monday's trading, Bancel's comments Tuesday contributed to renewed market uncertainty. 

The director of the UK's Oxford Group, which developed the AstraZeneca vaccine, has expressed optimism that the variant won't result in a "reboot" of the pandemic.

Here are some more coronavirus headlines from around the world.


Dutch health authorities say the newly detected omicron variant of COVID-19 was present a week before 14 passengers on two flights from South Africa were detected carrying the variant.

The omicron variant had been found "in two test samples" from November 19 and 23, the National Institute for Public Health (RIVM) said.

New variant returns focus on patent waiver spat

The chief of the EU's drug watchdog Emer Cooke said Tuesday that drugs targeting the new omicron variant could be approved as soon as three to four months from now.

Cooke said, "Even if the new variant becomes more widespread, the vaccines we have will continue to provide protection."

Germany's chancellor-in-waiting Olaf Scholz called of a general vaccine mandate, but said the issue would have to be decided in the country's parliament.

Talking to Germany's Bild television on Tuesday, the chancellor-in-waiting said he would like to see mandatory vaccinations "not too far away in the future, so I suggest beginning of February or March."

The country's top officials agreed to boost the vaccination campaign by administering 30 million more vaccines before Christmas. In order to achieve this, they will include new categories of people who are allowed to administer jabs. This will most likely include pharmacists, although final decision is expected to be published on Thursday.

The country is in the grips of its fourth coronavirus wave, with fears that the omicron variant could place an even larger burder on the country's hospitals. However, latest numbers indicate that nationwide seven-day incidence has declined slightly for the first time in more than three weeks. 

According to the Robert Koch Institute for disease control, it stands at 452.2 — down from 452.4 yesterday.

A total of 45,753 new infections were registered. For the first time in more than three weeks, the nationwide seven-day incidence has dropped slightly compared to the previous day.

The country is putting together a crisis team to coordinate the pandemic strategy of its new government. It is expected that a military general will take the helm.

Also in Germany, authorities in the eastern city of Leipzig said Tuesday they had detected the omicron variant in a 39-year-old man who had neither been abroad nor had contact with anyone who had been, news agency DPA reported. Leipzig is in the state of Saxony, which currently has Germany's highest overall infection rate.

Indeed, Professor Michael Hoelscher, the director of the Department for Infectious Diseases at Munich University Hospital, told DW that he believes omicron has been in existence within Europe for "a few weeks already."

"The travel bans will probably delay the spread of the disease a little bit but will not be able to hold it up."

Hoelscher said it was necessary to wait three weeks to find out more about how infectious the omicron variant is and whether it causes more serious cases of COVID-19 than others.

Greece has announced mandatory jabs for over 60s, with those who are not vaccinated facing fines if they don't comply.

In the UK, the chief of the Health Security Agency Jenny Harries said Tuesday there were five cases confirmed of the omicron variant and 10 more "highly likely" cases but that there was no indication of a bigger surge in the country yet.

Meanwhile, new measures took effect in England on Tuesday, with face masks again compulsory in shops and on public transportation, as the government said it would offer all adults a booster vaccine within two months.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the measures would "buy us time in the face'' of the new variant.

Health authorities in France gave the greenlight for children aged 5-11 to be vaccinated if they are immunocompromised or live with people who are.

Last week, the European Medicines Agency approved BioNTech-Pfizer's vaccine for children aged five to 11.

Middle East

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) says it is the first country in the world to have vaccinated its entire population at least once. 

Some 90% of the population of the UAE have received two doses, according to the Crisis and Disaster Management Authority (NCEMA).

The Americas

Canada has added Malawi, Egypt, and Nigeria to its travel ban list in a bid to curb the spread of the omicron variant. This comes after travelers who had recently been to
South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Mozambique were barred entry last week. Canada has so far identified five people carrying the omicron variant, including two from Nigeria.

Canadian officials also said alll air travelers, except those arriving from the US, would need to be tested for COVID-19.

Brazil reported two "preliminary" cases of the Omicron variant after health officials examined a Brazilian who recently traveled to South Africa and his wife. If confirmed they would be the first cases in Latin America. The passenger was able to fly into Sao Paolo with a negative test, but a new test two days later returned positive.


Singapore is to hold off on further reopening measures while it assesses the omicron COVID-19 variant and will boost testing to reduce the risk of local transmission.

"This is a prudent thing to do for now, when we are faced with a major uncertainty," Health Minister Ong Ye Kung told a media briefing on Tuesday. He added that the variant had not yet been detected locally.

Meanwhile, reports have surfaced that Japan has recorded its first case of omicron, according to a report from the Kyodo news agency. The agency cited unidentified government sources, saying that the individual in question had arrived from Namibia.

Japan has imposed some of the strictest travel curbs in the world since omicron emerged, closing its borders to foreigners on Tuesday for at least a month.

In China, the foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the fast-spreading omicron variant of COVID-19 "will definitely lead to challenges" come February when Beijing plays host to the Winter Olympics.


A person has tested positive for omicron on the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion.

The 53-year old man who had traveled to Mozambique and made a stop-over in South Africa returned to La Reunion some two weeks ago.

The individual is said to be currently in isolation.

India has said it stands ready to "expeditiously" send more COVID-19 vaccine to Africa, after China pledged 1 billion doses to the continent.

India and China have close ties with many African countries, although Beijing has pumped much more money into the continent

New Delhi says it has supplied more than 25 million doses of domestically-made shots to 41 African nations, mostly through the global vaccine-distribution network COVAX.


Australian officials have scrambled to track close contacts and visited locations of an international traveler who was most likely infected with the omicron variant.

New South Wales state health officials said initial testing "strongly indicates" the traveler — who arrived in Sydney before the latest border restrictions — is infected with the strain.

The fully vaccinated individual visited a busy shopping center in Sydney while likely infectious, officials say. 

All passengers who were on the same flight have been asked to self-isolate for 14 days.

If confirmed, the total number of cases infected with the new variant in Australia will rise to six. The other cases have been in quarantine and are asymptomatic or display very mild symptoms.

jsi, rc, ar/wmr (AFP, dpa, Reuters, AP)