Buenos Aires — Argentina received 2.6 million doses of the Moderna vaccine on December 23, the first delivery as part of a contract signed in July for 20 million doses, with the vaccine arriving in the country at a time when it has already vaccinated 82% of the population with a first dose, 69% with two and 4.6% with a booster jab.
The shipment also arrives as Argentina is suffering another surge in cases, with the Delta variant still dominant, while the first cases of the Omicron variant are starting to emerge.
The Moderna doses will work in the country as part of the heterological scheme, in combination with other vaccines. Cesar Sanz Rodríguez, Moderna’s vice president of Medical Affairs for Europe, Middle East ad Africa, highlights the Moderna vaccine’s value as a booster dose.
Talking to Bloomberg Línea in an exclusive interview, he also offered details of te development of a new vaccine aimed specifically at ameliorating the effects of the Omicron variant: “We already have a prototype vaccine for testing on animals, and in principle, if there are no setbacks, we will be able to begin the first clinical trials with humans in early 2022, to have the first test readings at the start of the second quarter of next year”.
The following interview was edited for length and clarity.
How has the Moderna vaccine worked, which uses the mRNA messenger technology in combination with other vaccines, and how could it be applied in Argentina, which has the Sinopharm and Sputnik varieties?
We’re lucky in that at the same time as a lot of data is being generated about Omicron studies have been published and a study is going to be published evaluating the possibility of combining vaccines. In effect, Argentina has generated a lot of information in this regard on Moderna an. Part of the information that has been generated about Moderna regards the heterologous use of the vaccine, because in the initial stage of the pandemic there was not a majority use of the Moderna vaccine, or rather far from it. And what we are seeing is that it made sense, firstly from a safety perspective. The safety profiles of combined vaccines are similar to those used in the homologous use of vaccines. But we are also seeing that it could make sense from an immunological point of view, depending on the combinations, by combining one vaccine such as Moderna a very interesting level of activation of antibodies and cellular immunity is achieved. I am convinced that what we will be seeing in the future is that heterologous vaccination will play an increasingly important role.
Many people in Argentina are now having a booster dose. What can the Moderna vaccine contribute in that role?
Perhaps the most important thing right now is to understand what is happening with Omicron, and the truth is that we are now getting access to results of the neutralization of the virus by taking samples from individuals vaccinated with Moderna, although they may have received the Moderna booster dose as part of the clinical trials, and the results are really very encouraging. First we had the disappointment and the concern at seeing that with just two doses the level of response to Omicron was low. We are talking about the level of antibodies with two shots of the vaccine being 40, 80 times lower than we were seeing against the normal variant of Covid But the encouraging news is that with the booster dose those levels can increase some 40-fold compared to the pre-booster levels. In this sense I think that what these results tells us is that with the current Spikevax mRNA 1273 we really have an important tool against Omicron. Logically we are also developing other lines of work, such as the specific Omicron vaccine that we are working on.
How are the clinical trials going for that specific booster for Omicron?
As soon as we all woke up to the reality of Omicron, at the end of November, when the explosion of cases occurred in South Africa, the company immediately got to work on a new vaccine. There is an important task of chemical engineering to be done first, because we have to work out the sequence and other elements, That work began immediately. And we are doing that work at risk. We have a prototype vaccine ofor testing on animals, which logically have to be done before we can test on humans. And, in principle, if there are no setbacks, we expect to be able to begin clinical trials in humans at the start of next year. And we think that will allow us to have a first reading of the clinical results at the beginning of the second quarter of 2022.
Would it be normal to imagine an annual vaccination scheme against the coronavirus, beyond the concerns and challenges that new variants could cause?
It’s a little early still to say if we will be facing that need. Right now, based on the information we have, it would probably be reasonable for those people who have not yet had a booster shot to get one as soon as possible. Argentina has already made moves in that direction, the date for administering booster shots has been brought forward from the six months that had initially been determined by the clinical trials. That is sensible.
The U.S. has approved the use of a pill produced by Pfizer, is Moderna working on something similar?
No, Moderna is a company based on a technological platform, which is the mRNA messenger platform. And in this sense the company’s strategic definition is something like the rule of a cobbler to his shoes, dedicate yourself to your area of expertise. We are also doing some preliminary work in other related areas, but always in relation to that type of technology, where there are companies that have a lot of expertise, and logically we hope that advances are made.
What do you think should be the role of the private sector in helping countries with low vaccination levels to have greater access to the vaccines?
The industrial sector has shown a really incredible production capacity. If one analyzes the quantity of doses of vaccines that have been produced, taking into account that the pandemic only emerged a short time ago, it is really an incredible and impressive effort. We will see over the coming months and years a greater availability of vaccines, because there will be new vaccines approved. And on the other hand, companies are increasing our production capacity. In the case of Moderna, we are a company that didn’t even have a factory a year and a half ago. This year we are going to produce around two billion doses, in round figures. And we expect that in 2022 we can increase our production capacity to three billion doses. We are currently striking up agreements with various governments, among them of developing countries. In Africa specifically we have announced that we are going to set up a factory that will be to supply doses in Africa. I think that with the efforts of all, and the efforts needed, we are going to see a progressive advance over the coming months and years. I am optimistic that the gap that we currently have between the more developed countries and those with problems of access to the vaccines will slowly be resolved. I am convinced of that.
A little over two million doses of the Moderna vaccine have arrived in Argentina, as part of a $20 million contract. Is there a plan agreed regarding the next shipments, in terms of quantities and dates?
I don’t have that information, it’s in development.
Argentina, unlike other countries, does not have an influential anti-vaccine sector. But there are always people who refuse to be vaccinated, and various measures are being proposed, such as vaccine passports and obligatory vaccines for large-scale events. What do you think of these strategies that seek to guarantee that people attending large gatherings are vaccinated?
It is important from a public health perspective to facilitate the vaccination of as many people as possible. Not only for the individual benefit but for the collective social benefit. Concrete measures that have to be implemented depends logically on the context, on the culture. It’s not the same to restrict a collective activity in a Latino country where we have much closer interaction than it is in Siberia, where the population density is much lower. So I really think it corresponds to the health authorities of each country. There are also people who will never believe in vaccines, and that is a fact, and then there are many people who are vaccine hesitant, who have questions. And I think it is very important to facilitate information to the greatest extent possible to all of those people who have doubts. I have a multitude of anecdotes about this, about people who come and ask very simple and very reasonable questions. It’s very important to create trust and security among the population. Sometimes the problem nowadays is that there is so much information circulating everywhere, often without any kind of filter, and that really confuses people and creates doubts. The media can help a lot by adopting the appropriate tone. When people tell me that the vaccines were developed very quickly, that it has all been like a big experiment, that we don’t know very much, I say okay, how about if we turn it around, that so few times in such a short time have we been capable of generating so much information. If one has doubts about the safety of the vaccine today we are seeing publications referring to millions and millions of people. We recently published a review of safety data that refers to 151 million vaccinated people. The vaccine has just passed its first anniversary. In other contexts we may have needed years and years of accumulated experience in order to have that type of information. We all have a shared responsibility, the authorities, the media, the pharmaceutical companies, health professionals. I think there’s a lot of work still to be done. But I think very good work is being done and when I look at the figures that we mentioned for Argentina, I think that is evident. The collective population has understood and it is doing the right thing, and I think that to continue to promote that will be fundamental in order to defeat the pandemic.