Moderna will be ready to roll out Omicron-specific booster this fall, chief medical officer says

Moderna will be ready to dish out an Omicron-specific COVID-19 booster vaccine this fall, its chief medical officer has said — as U.S. Covid cases surge 51 percent over the past two weeks.

The leading vaccine manufacturer’s Dr Paul Burton revealed it was now testing a shot against Omicron likely to be ‘even more superior’ than its current jab — with ‘large amounts’ set to be available as soon as this September.

All Covid vaccines are currently based on the original Wuhan virus, amid hesitancy among manufacturers to spend months making a new jab in case another variant emerges. If approved, Moderna’s shot would be the first to target the Omicron variant.

But more scientists have now raised concerns over whether extra top-up shots are actually needed, saying they only trigger a ‘temporary increase’ in protection. The World Health Organization’s chief scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan said Monday there ‘isn’t any good evidence’ that a fourth jab will be beneficial. 

Second boosters are already being rolled out to all Americans over 50 years old, but uptake is lagging with more than half of those eligible still yet to get their first top-up. It is expected that more Covid jabs will be rolled out this fall, like with flu, as the country heads into its third winter of the pandemic. 

It comes as Covid cases in the U.S. continue to climb to 56,000 a day on average, with a total of 43 states now seeing infections rise. Vermont, Rhode Island and New York all having the biggest outbreaks.

New York today raised its alert level to ‘medium’, after the infection rate passed more than 200 cases per 100,000 people in all its five boroughs. No new restrictions will be brought in at this stage, but if it rises to ‘high’ public health chiefs say they will consider again ordering masks to be worn in all indoor spaces.

But admissions to intensive care units remain at half the levels last summer with about 2,000 patients currently on the wards. For comparison, last year they never went below 4,000. Hospital admissions with the virus have risen 16 per cent in a fortnight, but this figure includes many people who have tested positive after being admitted to wards for something else such as a fall. Covid deaths are still falling.

It came as the World Health Organization's chief scientist, Dr Soumya Swaminathan, warned there was not any good evidence that fourth doses are needed

Moderna’s chief medical officer Dr Paul Burton said today that the leading vaccine maker would be ready to roll out Omicron-specific shots this fall. It came as the World Health Organization’s chief scientist, Dr Soumya Swaminathan, warned there was not any good evidence that fourth doses are needed

America's Covid cases have surged by 50 per cent in a fortnight, and are now rising in the majority of states. The hotspots are Vermont, Rhode Island and New York

America’s Covid cases have surged by 50 per cent in a fortnight, and are now rising in the majority of states. The hotspots are Vermont, Rhode Island and New York

But Covid deaths are continuing to fall, with the majority of states also seeing these start to tick down. But deaths are a lagging indicator, because of the time taken for someone who is infected to die from the virus

But Covid deaths are continuing to fall, with the majority of states also seeing these start to tick down. But deaths are a lagging indicator, because of the time taken for someone who is infected to die from the virus

The above map shows the infection rate in states across the US. It reveals the hotspots Vermont, Rhode Island and New York

About 250,000 fatalities in southern states may have been avoided if they masked up more, scientists claim

About 250,000 fatalities in southern states during the Covid pandemic could have been avoided if people masked up more, scientists have claimed.

In the study, Georgetown University experts looked at excess mortality — the number of deaths above expected levels — from January 2020 to September 2021. This is a better measure of Covid’s impact because it captures deaths due to the virus that were not correctly diagnosed and due to the crisis in healthcare.

The scientists found that in southern states — including Texas, Alabama, and Georgia — there were 392,000 excess deaths.

But in the northeastern areas — including New York, Vermont and Rhode Island — there were 152,000 more fatalities than expected.

The study was led by Georgetown University’s Dr Michael Soto, who previously successfully urged a Massachusetts-based council to keep a face mask mandate in place throughout last winter.

Writing in the paper, the scientists said: ‘Differential implementations of and adherence to stay-at-home orders, mask use, and other non-pharmaceutical interventions seem to be at least a partial explanation for the regional differences in Covid mortality.’

It was published in the journal PLOS One. 

Dr Burton told CBS News’ Face the Nation that the vaccine manufacturer — behind one of three jabs being used in the states — would have Omicron-specific shots this fall. Pfizer said in January that it would have an Omicron-specific shot ready by March, although this is yet to be rolled out.

Dr Burton said: ‘We announced a couple weeks ago a new, variant-specific booster that we’ve been testing, and we have an additional candidate, our lead candidate, in testing now that I believe is going to be even more superior.

‘We are confident that by the fall of this year, we should have large amounts of that new booster vaccine that will protect against omicron and other variants, and really protect Americans and people around the world as we go into the fall of 2022.’

Moderna has also submitted a request for its vaccine to be approved among children aged six months to five years old. If this gets the green-light, it will make the U.S. the first country in the world to inoculate children younger than two years.

Studies found the jab was about 37 per cent effective against infection among two to five-year-olds, and 51 per cent effective for those aged under two years.

Dr Burton said that for parents and caregivers, this means children who get the vaccine would have their risk of infection ‘cut in half’. He added: ‘I know that 50 per cent is often lower than what we’re used to seeing with our vaccine, but it’s because this study was conducted during [the Omicron wave].’

Yet more scientists have raised concerns Monday, however, that top-up jabs are not needed.

The WHO is yet to recommend another booster shot, but Dr Swaminathan has warned that ‘there isn’t any good evidence at this point of time’ to suggest it would be beneficial.

She told CNBC: ‘What we know from immunology is that if you give another booster, you will see a temporary increase in the neutralizing antibodies. But what we’ve also seen is that these neutralizing antibodies wane quite rapidly.

‘This happened after the third dose. And it’s happened again after the fourth dose.’

Other scientists to suggest more top-up shots may not be needed were Paul Goepfert, professor of medicine at the University of Alabama, who said it ‘doesn’t really do much of anything’.

He added: ‘I’m not sure we need to get out and just jump up and down screaming that everybody needs to get abroad.’

Last week other scientists raised concerns that the U.S. was heading towards rolling out yet more doses, when it is not clear if they are needed.

Dr Paul Offit, from the Food and Drug Administration’s jabs advisory panel, has said at a recent meeting the only question was ‘what were we going to boost with, not whether we were going to boost’. He added: ‘We didn’t define what the goal of this extra shot was.’

Several countries including the UK and Singapore have approved fourth doses for the most vulnerable groups, but they have stopped short of rolling them out to over-50s, unlike the U.S.

There have been repeated suggestions that new Covid vaccines may be rolled out every year, like with the flu. But in recent weeks the scientific consensus has fractured, with more and more experts now suggesting the additional doses may not be needed.

It comes as America’s Covid cases continue to climb amid the emergence of an even more transmissible version of Omicron in New York — but hospitalizations and deaths remain low.

Vermont, with 350 cases per 100,000 people, Rhode Island, at 305, and New York, at 291, are the current hotspots in the U.S. recording the most Covid cases per head.

For comparison, at the other end of the scale South Carolina (16.28), Mississippi (24.7) and Wyoming (27.3) have the smallest outbreaks in the country.

The new Omicron sub-variant — scientifically named BA.2.12.1 and thought to be about 25 per cent more transmissible than the old strain — is currently dominant in all three hotspots, and spreading in other areas along the west coast. It has already reached every corner of the country.

Daily hospital admissions due to the virus are now rising in 36 out of 50 states, and are up 16 per cent in two weeks nationally. But the 17,000 admissions a day are barely a tenth of the peak of the Omicron wave, when they hit more than 150,000 a day. Covid deaths are still falling in 30 states.