With vaccine immunity waning, and concerns over a fall surge growing, officials from Moderna announced on Wednesday that data from its study on Omicron-containing bivalent booster, revealed that it offers superior antibody response against omicron – one month after injection - compared to the company's current vaccine.
Moderna Chief Medical Officer Dr. Paul Burton told ABC News that he believes the company's "highly effective" updated COVID-19 bivalent vaccine could be a "turning point" in the nation's fight against the pandemic.
"The data are definitely better than I had even hoped," Burton told ABC News that in an interview. "Given the magnitude of effect — that seven-fold increase in antibody levels — we could for the first time, be at a vaccine that is truly effective with once yearly dosing because we know those antibody levels will decay."
Moderna plans to file its data with the Food and Drug Administration "as quickly as possible," and should the vaccine be authorized, the company will be ready to supply the shots to "as many people around the world as possible," Burton said.
"These are very important data. It's an important announcement. And I think it has the potential to be a real turning point in this latter part second half of the pandemic," Burton said.
The announcement comes as the U.S. continues to battle a secondary surge from omicron subvariants amid waning immunity, relaxed attitudes by many towards mitigation measures and fatigue and skepticism about vaccination and booster shots.
After more than a year of persistent efforts and messaging from federal and local authorities, just under 71% of the eligible population aged 5 and over is fully vaccinated and less than half who have completed their primary series have had their first booster dose.
Burton said the company hopes this new vaccine could, for the first time, provide a roadmap for annual COVID-19 vaccinations, rather than shots every few months.
"I believe that we will be able to get to this once yearly dosing now because we have high levels now. That will probably even increase and mature over time, potentially giving people protection over a full year. We could finally get to that once yearly protection, so I think it's really important," Burton said.
The variant adapted vaccine, which contains omicron mRNA, was found to be highly effective against omicron, Burton said. The company reported that this new bivalent vaccine combines the original shot and the omicron mRNA together in a single shot.
"The original vaccine gives great protection against delta and other variants that we've seen still recently, and that really caused significant disease. Omicron does cause significant disease. It's definitely not mild, but it's super infectious. You need to combine the two together," Burton explained.
Although it is still unknown how well the new vaccine will be able to prevent infections and severe illness, Burton said he is confident that the vaccine will "definitely prevent hospitalization and death."
"It's highly effective," Burton said, adding that the safety profile is also "very robust," and "reassuring."
Should another variant of concern emerge, one drastically different than omicron and the already existing variants, scientists at Moderna will be prepared to reevaluate and readapt the shot to address the new threat.
"If something again really drastic occurs, Well, we'll have to look at that. But I would say again, what I think we've been able to show here, is that we can adapt very quickly. We were able to make this new booster in weeks and get it into testing. I think we can even speed that up now. So, I think we were well prepared for that," Burton said. [9:45 in]
Burton said he remains worried about the growing population of "unprotected" and "under-vaccinated" Americans, who will be vulnerable to more severe disease.
"But by the fall, here, and around the world, we're gonna have many people who are unvaccinated and under- vaccinated and they're going to be very vulnerable," Burton said. "By Autumn, we know that waning occurs. Even people who got boosted in the new year, come the autumn of this year, they're going to have low levels of antibody. They're going to be unprotected, under-vaccinated and they're going to be very vulnerable."
The sentiment of booster fatigue among some Americans is another concern for Burton, he said.
"The fatigue and just the eagerness of all of us... to kind of put COVID behind us has led to apathy and a real reduction in boosting," Burton said.
As Moderna also prepares for the FDA to consider authorizing its pediatric vaccine for children under six years-old, Burton said he hopes the youngest Americans will also have access to this updated shot as well, in the fall, once they receive their primary series.
"I think the issue for the littlest kids is that they have no protection right now, they have had no primary vaccination they're under protected," Burton said. "I would propose that parents, caregivers get their little kids vaccinated now, They'll be ready to go back to school with Moderna. We know that two doses will give them protection... I think it's likely that they will need an additional boost at some point. And I would propose, and I think we all would imagine, that this is then the booster for them to get in the autumn of this coming year."
The company is conducting studies to look into safety and efficacy of the shots in young children, and scientists are expected to have data later in the year, Burton said.