Moderna will sell doses of its vaccine that target Omicron coronavirus subvariants, according to the agencies that announced the agreement. The actual contract hasn’t yet been made public.
Vaccine makers have been updating their COVID-19 shots because the vaccines are based on the Wuhan strain, which hasn’t been prevalent since 2020. The vaccines have proven increasingly worse at protecting recipients as newer variants emerge.
BA.5, an Omicron subvariant that’s currently dominant in the United States, bypasses the protection from vaccination and prior infection better than earlier strains, according to emerging data. Prior infection, or natural immunity, continues to hold up better than vaccination, according to studies.
U.S. drug regulators recommended in June that vaccine makers tweak their formulations to include components of BA.5 and BA.4, another Omicron subvariant. The companies had been focusing on early Omicron strains, which have since been largely displaced.
“Currently available vaccines have helped reduce the most serious outcomes (hospitalization and death) caused by COVID-19, but results from post-authorization observational studies have shown that effectiveness of primary vaccination wanes over time against certain variants, including Omicron. And while initial booster doses have helped restore protection against severe disease and hospitalization associated with omicron, studies have also indicated waning effectiveness of first booster doses over time,” Dr. Peter Marks, a top Food and Drug Administration (FDA) official, said in a statement.
“As we move into the fall and winter, it is critical that we have safe and effective vaccine boosters that can provide protection against circulating and emerging variants to prevent the most severe consequences of COVID-19.”
Any updated formulations would need to be cleared by the agency.
“We are pleased to extend our successful collaboration with the U.S. government,” Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said in a July 29 statement. “Moderna’s mRNA platform is enabling us to rapidly create mRNA-1273.222, a bivalent vaccine that specifically targets Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5, the most prevalent variants of concern in the U.S. today.”
Before the Moderna agreement, the U.S. government agreed to buy 105 million updated Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine doses.
That agreement was valued at $3.2 billion.
Both agreements were hammered out with the Department of Defense, which coordinated with the Department of Health and Human Services. They include options that enable the government to buy up to 600 million doses in total, or 300 million from each company, if additional doses are deemed necessary. However, that would require more funding from Congress, Biden administration officials say.
Deliveries of the updated Moderna and Pfizer vaccines could come as early as the fall, pending FDA authorization and backing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We must stay vigilant in our fight against COVID-19 and continue to expand Americans’ access to the best vaccines and treatments,” Health Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “As we look to the fall and winter, we’re doing just that—ensuring Americans have the tools they need to stay safe and help keep our nation moving forward.”