Covid? What Covid? Moderna boss expects pandemic to be done in a year


Moderna’s chief executive Stéphane Bancel said there will be enough jabs to vaccinate the world’s 8billion people by the middle of next year and he expects a return to normal by this time in 2022 

The coronavirus pandemic will have blown over by next year, according to the boss of one of the first drug giants to get a Covid vaccine approved. 

Moderna’s chief executive Stéphane Bancel said enough jabs will have been made to vaccinate all of the world’s 7.7billion people by the middle of next year.

Asked when life would return to normal, he said: ‘As of today, in a year, I assume.’ 

Meanwhile, an array of top experts have also lined up to talk down the threat of the virus, which officially emerged in China at the end of 2019.

Sir John Bell, one of the Government’s advisers on vaccines, today claimed Britain was ‘over the worst’ and ‘should be fine’ once winter has passed.

Oxford University’s Dame Sarah Gilbert, who helped create AstraZeneca’s jab, last night reiterated that Covid will eventually just become a cold — which some scientists tracking the UK’s outbreak say is already happening.

And in another ray of hope, Dame Sarah also insisted it was unlikely to mutate into an even deadlier variant.

Influential SAGE member Professor Neil Ferguson today also claimed it was unlikely another full-blown lockdown would be needed.

But the Imperial College London epidemiologist, whose grisly projections spooked ministers into first lockdown last spring, echoed warnings from No10 that some restrictions could be needed if pressure starts to explode on hospitals.

The Prime Minister has already rolled the pitch for the return of masks, work from home guidance and vaccine passports when he unveiled his winter plan to fight Covid last week.

Daily hospitalisation admissions are currently dropping, with 747 Covid-infected Britons seeking care on September 18 — down nearly a fifth in a week. 

But cases finally appear to be on the rise again, in what some experts believe may be a delayed back-to-school wave. Experts feared the return of millions of pupils would trigger a meteoric spike in infections after cases spiralled to record highs in Scotland, when children went back in mid-August.  

Sir John Bell, one of the Government's advisers on vaccines, said Britain was 'over the worst' and 'should be fine' once winter has passed

Professor Neil Ferguson today claimed it is unlikely another full-blown lockdown would be needed

Sir John Bell (left), one of the Government’s advisers on vaccines, said Britain was ‘over the worst’ and ‘should be fine’ once winter has passed. And Professor Neil Ferguson (right) today also claimed unlikely another full-blown lockdown would be needed

Department of Health data contradicts the ZOE study, showing that Covid cases rose week-on-week for the last five days. But it is picking up a surge among younger age groups, which matches the study

Department of Health data contradicts the ZOE study, showing that Covid cases rose week-on-week for the last five days. But it is picking up a surge among younger age groups, which matches the study

Infection rates across the UK rose by 13 per cent yesterday compared to one week earlier, with 34,460 cases recorded, according to official Department of Health and Social Care.

It marks the fifth day in a row that cases have ticked upwards.

But mirroring the drop seen in hospital admissions, 166 deaths were recorded, down 17 per cent from last week.  

It comes as Mr Bancel told Swiss newspaper Neue Zuercher Zeitung the outbreak could be over within 12 months, as a hike in global vaccine production will ensure there is enough to double-jab everyone in the world. 

Number of Britons falling ill with Covid every day falls by 5% in a week, symptom-tracking app shows

The number of Britons falling ill with Covid every day fell five per cent last week, according to one of the country’s biggest surveillance projects. 

King’s College London scientists estimated 45,081 people caught the virus every day in the week to September 18, down from 47,276 in the previous seven-day spell.

But the data showed there was an uptick in infections among under-18s, in yet another sign of a delayed back-to-school wave of infections. Experts warned cases would spiral after children returned to classrooms in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in September. 

Professor Tim Spector, who leads the study, warned today that the UK still had one of the highest infection rates in Europe and called for the Covid symptoms list to be updated to help get a handle on infections.

He said the classic three symptoms — cough, fever and loss of taste and smell — were rarer these days thanks to vaccines which had made the virus more like a bad cold. He said other warning signs like a sore throat, runny nose and sneezing should be added to the list.

The symptom-tracking apps figures differ from the Department of Health dashboard, which shows Covid cases have risen week-on-week for the last five days. But both are pointing to a surge in cases among youngsters.

Experts have warned the study — also run by health data science company ZOE — is becoming less reliable because vaccines have made it harder to pick out Covid from other respiratory infections like flu. Almost nine in ten over-16s have got at least one dose of the jab.

Latest figures from Test and Trace showed the number of people that tested positive for the virus in England fell 22 per cent last week, after there were 161,923 positive tests. This was the lowest number since the end of June. 

He said: ‘If you look at the industry-wide expansion of production capacities over the past six months, enough doses should be available by the middle of next year so that everyone on this earth can be vaccinated.

And there will be enough injections to give boosters to everyone who needs them and vaccinate children, he said.

People who don’t get a vaccine will inevitably catch the virus and get antibodies from natural infection, the vaccine boss said.

He told the newspaper: ‘Those who do not get vaccinated will immunize themselves naturally, because the Delta variant is so contagious. 

‘In this way we will end up in a situation similar to that of the flu. You can either get vaccinated and have a good winter. 

‘Or you don’t do it and risk getting sick and possibly even ending up in hospital.’

Asked if that meant a return to normal in the second half of next year, he said: ‘As of today, in a year, I assume.’

Mr Bancel said he expected Governments to approve booster shots for people already vaccinated because patients at risk who were vaccinated last autumn ‘undoubtedly’ needed a refresher.

Moderna’s booster injection is a half dose of the vaccine used for first and second jabs, which means there are more booster doses available. 

He said: ‘The volume of vaccine is the biggest limiting factor. 

‘With half the dose, we would have 3billion doses available worldwide for the coming year instead of just 2billion,’ he said.

The composition of the booster shot remains the same as the original for this year because Moderna had not had enough time to change it.

‘We are currently testing Delta-optimized variants in clinical trials. They will form the basis for the booster vaccination for 2022. We are also trying out Delta plus Beta, the next mutation that scientists believe is likely,’ he said.

Moderna can use existing production lines for the new variants as for the original Covid vaccine and the price of vaccination will stay the same, Mr Bancel added.

It comes as Sir Bell, a regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford, said Britain is ‘over the worst’ of the pandemic and ‘should be fine’ once winter has passed.

His comments followed Royal Society of Medicine webinar last night, where Professor Dame Gilbert said viruses tend to become ‘less virulent’ — meaning it has less severe outcomes, such as hospitalisation and death — as they spread more easily.

She said ‘there is no reason to think we will have a more virulent version’ of Covid and there will be growing immunity in the population, as there is with all other seasonal coronaviruses.

Asked about these comments on Times Radio, Sir Bell said: ‘If you look at the trajectory we’re on, we’re a lot better off than we were six months ago.

‘So the pressure on the NHS is largely abated. If you look at the deaths from Covid, they tend to be very elderly people, and it’s not entirely clear it was Covid that caused all those deaths.

‘So I think we’re over the worst of it now.’

King's College London scientists estimated 45,081 people caught the virus every day in the week to September 18, down from 47,276 in the previous seven-day spell

King’s College London scientists estimated 45,081 people caught the virus every day in the week to September 18, down from 47,276 in the previous seven-day spell

But the data showed there was an uptick in infections among under-18s, in yet another sign of a delayed back-to-school wave of infections. Experts had warned children returning to classrooms would trigger a spike in cases

But the data showed there was an uptick in infections among under-18s, in yet another sign of a delayed back-to-school wave of infections. Experts had warned children returning to classrooms would trigger a spike in cases

He expects there to be sustained high infection rates caused by the Delta variant, including in double-jabbed people — who are not likely to experience symptoms or severe illness — and this will add to immunity in the population. 

Sir Bell said: ‘So I think we’re headed for the position Sarah describes probably by next spring would be my view.

‘We have to get over the winter to get there but I think it should be fine.’  

He said ‘it’s pretty important that we don’t panic about where we are now’, because hospitalisations and deaths from Covid remain ‘very low’. 

Covid vaccines are working to prevent serious illness and death but ‘don’t really effectively reduce the amount of transmission’, he noted.

This was the reason infection rates in Israel skyrocketed earlier this month and in Britain after the holidays.

Sir Bell said: ‘If everybody’s expecting the vaccines and the boosters to stop that, they won’t. And it’s slightly a false promise.’

He agreed with England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty that the vast majority of children would get Covid without a vaccine, adding ‘this is now an endemic virus, it’ll circulate pretty widely’.

But Sir Bell said there are ‘no bad consequences’ in children with the virus, adding that ‘I don’t think there’s any reason to panic’.

He continued: ‘I don’t think we’re going to have a lot of children in intensive care units. And in fact, the evidence is we don’t, we never have. And the likelihood of severe disease (is) quite small.’

Sir John said he believed the issue of long Covid ‘has been slightly overblown’, adding that ‘proper epidemiological studies’ find the incidence of long Covid is ‘much lower than people had anticipated’.

And Professor Ferguson, whose pandemic forecasts triggered the Government to impose the first national lockdown last March, doesn’t think the UK will ‘need to go as far as full-blown lockdown’.

Asked in an Imperial interview today whether additional Covid restrictions would be needed later this year, he said: ‘The thing that will drive the government is NHS demand. 

‘If we started seeing a really significant uptick in hospital admissions, that’s the point where we might need to consider the reintroduction of some degree of social distancing or other measures. 

‘I don’t think that will need to go as far as full-blown lockdown but we might need to reimpose certain restrictions just to get hospital admissions down again.’

He said official figures show that cases are rising in parts of the UK where schools opened earlier and infections among school-aged children are increasing.

But this ‘hasn’t propagated through to the wider population’, meaning ‘we’re not seeing a rapid increase in case numbers associated with the opening of schools’. 

Professor Ferguson said the challenge will come as Britain heads into the autumn and winter, when more people mix indoors, people move closer towards normal contact levels and protection from the vaccine among the first Britons who were jabbed begins to wane.

‘So there’s also likely to be some upward pressure on case numbers,’ he said.

But the UK’s case trends are ‘cautiously encouraging in the sense that we have flat or even slightly declining case numbers’, Professor Ferguson added.

And the most recent data on booster doses from countries including Israel shows the top-up jabs are ‘highly effective at boosting antibodies and protecting people’, he said.

Israel faced an unprecedented third wave of infection earlier this month, despite being one of the most vaccinated nations in the world. But data from the booster rollout — which is open to all over-12s — suggests the extra jabs helped to curb rising hospital admissions. 

Professor Ferguson said: ‘As long as we can role out the booster programme and the vaccination of teenagers as promptly as possible — and I do think we’ll probably have to move to second doses in teenagers as well to get effective levels of protection against Delta — but as long as that is done in a prompt way, I’m moderately optimistic. 

‘We can’t rule out some need for additional measures, but I very much doubt we will need to go back into lockdown again.’

The Prime Minister last week set out the Government’s winter plan to avoid the NHS being overwhelmed and another lockdown. 

He insisted that the UK was ‘incomparably’ better placed to deal with the disease this year and hoped the outbreak could be kept stable with more jabs and the public behaving sensibly.

But Professor Whitty warned infections were ‘high’ compared to last year and the NHS was under ‘extreme pressure’ even though vaccines were helping significantly.

The winter ‘Plan A’ involves giving booster vaccine doses to all over 50s, healthcare workers and the most vulnerable.  

The Government will also dish out antivirals and other treatments to those who become most unwell from the virus, roll out the country’s biggest-ever flu drive and give the NHS more funding to clear the backlog.

It will also tell people to limited their risks by meeting outside or in well-ventilated spaces, wearing masks in crowded spaces and getting tests when unwell.

But if the NHS comes under ‘unsustainable’ pressure, ministers will implement mandatory Covid passports, make face coverings mandatory and asked people to work from home.

And officials have not ruled out another lcokdown as a ‘last resort’ if these measures do not keep the pandemic under control.

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