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Pfizer says its vaccine targeting Omicron will be ready in March

COVID hospitalizations rise as pediatric cases surge
COVID hospitalizations rise as pediatric cases surge 03:16

Pfizer will have a COVID-19 vaccine that specifically targets the Omicron variant ready by March, the pharmaceutical company's chief executive said Monday. 

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said the company has already begun manufacturing a new version of its COVID-19 vaccine that aims to protect recipients against Omicron. "This vaccine will be ready in March," he told CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Monday. "We [are] already starting manufacturing some of these quantities at risk."

Last week, Omicron made up more than 95% of all new COVID-19 cases in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

CDC updates its isolation recommendations 09:16

Pfizer also said it is working to improve its existing vaccine formulation, developed jointly with Germany's BioNTech, based on the vaccine's reaction to new COVID-19 variants that arise. Pfizer can "update the current vaccine to address any future variant of potential concern, if needed," a company spokesperson said in a statement to CBS MoneyWatch. 

"In the event that a third dose with the current vaccine is not found to protect against the Omicron variant or other future variants, Pfizer expects to be able to develop and produce a tailor-made vaccine against that variant in approximately 100 days, subject to regulatory approval," the spokesperson added. 

The spokesperson confirmed that it has already begun manufacturing doses of the Omicron-specific vaccine, should it be deemed necessary.

White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci in December predicted that Omicron would become the dominant virus strain in the U.S., but he has not said that a new Omicron-specific shot is necessary to maintain immunity. Fauci instead urged Americans to get booster shots, which studies have shown provide greater protection against Omicron. 

A recent study from the U.K. Health Security Agency found that booster shots are up to 75% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 infection caused by Omicron.

Booster shot is first line of defense

Moderna on Monday said in an update on its website that while the pharmaceutical firm's first line of defense against Omicron is a third dose of its existing vaccine, it is also developing an Omicron-specific booster shot.

"Given the long-term threat demonstrated by Omicron's immune escape, Moderna will continue to develop an Omicron-specific variant vaccine," the company said. Moderna expects the vaccine to enter advanced clinical trials early this year, but did not specify when. 

Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said at Goldman Sachs' Healthcare CEO Conference last week that he expects protection provided by the booster against Omicron to wane. "I would expect that it's not going to hold great," he said, referring to the efficacy of a third vaccine dose over time. 

Bancel also said the company is working on an Omicron-specific vaccine candidate that he expects to enter clinical trials "very soon." At a JPMorgan Chase health are conference on Monday, Bancel reiterated that the company is "working on an Omicron-specific booster." 

FDA approves COVID antiviral pill as scientists learn more about risk from Omicron 08:24

Speaking at the same investor conference on Monday, Pfizer's Bourla said the company expects to make 120 million courses of its antiviral COVID-19 pill, called Paxlovid — the equivalent of 3.6 billion tablets — in 2022.

Pfizer plans to steadily ramp up its manufacturing this year, producing up to 7 million courses of Paxlovid by April and a total of 30 million by June. The remaining 90 million will be manufactured over the ensuing months, Bourla said. A single treatment consists of three tablets that are taken twice a day over the course of five days — a total of 30 pills.

In late December, the Food and Drug Administration said it had approved Paxlovid to treat COVID-19 for emergency use, allowing limited use of the drug in Americans as young as 12 who are at "high risk for progression to severe COVID-19." The agency last month also authorized molnupiravir, an antiviral pill produced by Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, to treat some high-risk adults with the disease. 

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