A combination vaccine to protect against flu and Covid-19 is likely to be available by the end of 2023, the chief executive of drug maker Moderna said during a global discussion on the future of the pandemic.
Experts say the global pandemic is likely to shift towards endemic status in 2022, with Covid-19 adopted into the annual roster of common coronaviruses like the flu and the common cold.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum, Stephane Banchel, chief executive of Moderna, said research and development was already under way to develop a dual vaccine against influenza and Covid-19.
“We want to make sure there is one booster for corona and flu so there is more compliance,” he said.
“The best case scenario is by the fall of 2023 to have a combined vaccine for flu and Covid.
“The current vaccines have not yet been adapted to the current strains of the virus.
“We saw a drop in protection after two doses, but strong protection after a third dose which was very encouraging.
“Now we are working on a vaccine for Omicron which we hope to have data on very soon.
“The enemy is not another company or group, but the virus.”
A Moderna booster tailored to fight the latest Omicron variant is likely to enter human trials within weeks, with another booster likely to be required towards the fourth quarter of the year.
Herd immunity elusive
However, herd immunity against Covid-19 resulting from global vaccinations and infection rates could be elusive due to the constant threat of viral evolution.
While Omicron appears to be more transmissible and scientific indications show it is less lethal than former variants, danger remains, scientists say.
Dr Anthony Fauci, the leading White House health adviser, expressed hopes for further scientific breakthroughs in RNA vaccines to harness natural immunity.
That would provide an extra layer of defence without the need to add adjuvants over time as the virus mutates, he said.
“We must be careful we do not get into the whack-a-mole approach every time there is a new variant,” he said.
“One of the things we are pushing for is how to find out the mechanisms that induce a response to a commonality of all the different variants. That is an important scientific goal.”
Herd immunity is achieved through having a high level of people in a population who have either been fully vaccinated or have recovered from an infection, but that protection seems to wane quite quickly.
A third issue is that the virus has the capability of mutating to elude immune response.
“That is what we have seen with Omicron,” Dr Fauci said.
“That is a different scenario to what we have seen with measles. That virus does not change and a vaccine or infection gives lifelong immunity.
“That is the ideal herd immunity, but this is very complicated and it could be elusive [with Covid].”
The global pandemic has fast-tracked research and better prepared the world for further outbreaks, experts have said, but a unified approach and a centralised vaccination development programme is the only way to offer universal protection from viruses in the future.
Supported by the World Health Organisation, the Covax facility aimed to ensure vaccine access for low and middle-income countries, and it set a target of distributing two billion doses by the end of 2021.
Wealthy nations stockpiling vaccines for booster campaigns resulted in Covax delivering only a billion doses to 151 countries.
Of the 194 nations affiliated with the WHO, 36 had vaccinated less than 10 per cent of their populations as of January 13, and 88 countries less than 40 per cent.
Despite that shortfall, Richard Hatchett, chief executive of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovations (CEPI), told the forum that much had been achieved in 2021.
“Where supply was the major challenge in 2021, the last mile will be the major challenge of 2022, making vaccines available to anyone who wants it,” he said.
“A lot of focus has been placed on the equity gap, but we need to look at what has been accomplished.
“We will get to a point this year where either people will have been vaccinated or infected with the virus.
“The long-term view is that Covid is going to behave more like flu and evolve. It has the potential to become pandemic at any time.
“It will retain that capability and that should be concerning to all of us.”