Gerald Wiegand in conversation: German Moderna boss: “Our vision is the combined vaccination against Covid, flu and RSV” Ema has just given the green light for Moderna’s children’s vaccine. Six to eleven year olds could soon be vaccinated. An update vaccine is pending for adults. The Germany boss of Moderna on the Omicron strategy and a planned super vaccine. Moderna’s children’s vaccine is in the starting blocks. An omicron vaccine is slated to come in August — possibly. Gerald Wiegand, head of Germany at the US company, explains why this is the case in an interview with FOCUS Online. First of all, what is certain: the Committee for Medicinal Products for Human Use of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) has recommended the Moderna vaccine for children between the ages of six and eleven years. “If the European Commission approves it, you can work with the current vaccine immediately,” explains Wiegand.
Gerald Wiegand manages Moderna’s activities in Germany. He has more than 20 years of experience in the life sciences industry and has most recently been responsible for the German business unit for rare diseases at Takeda since 2017. Gerald Wiegand previously worked in pharmaceuticals for Bristol-Myers Squibb and Eli Lilly. He founded the German branch of the oncology diagnostics company Genomic Health (now Exact Sciences) and the German Professional Association of Accredited Laboratories in Medicine (ALM eV). Gerald Wiegand received his PhD in biophysics from the Technical University of Munich and an MBA from INSEAD. For a quick start of the vaccinations, the bottles of the booster doses for adults are ready to hand. Because for six to eleven year olds, the vaccination schedule provides for two needles, each with 50 micrograms of active ingredient. This corresponds to the booster dose and half the adult dose for the first and second vaccination. In Germany, the start also depends on whether the Standing Vaccination Committee (Stiko) recommends vaccination. For the comparable vaccine from the manufacturer Biontech, it did this for five to eleven year olds who are particularly at risk or recommended it for children who have contact with risk groups.
Moderna boss on side effects and risk of myocarditis
“Our study data show a very pleasing benefit-risk ratio for this age group,” reports Wiegand. The benefit: Spikevax can provide very good protection – it is comparable to the protection factor of young adults (the direct comparison group was the 18 to 25 year olds). The same applies to the side effects. The EMA press release states: “These include pain, redness and swelling at the injection site, fatigue, headache, chills, nausea, vomiting, swollen or tender lymph nodes under the arm, fever and muscle and muscle pain Joint pain.”One thing that worries many parents is myocarditis, which is a possible inflammation of the heart muscle. The Moderna boss does not give exact figures on the risk of myocarditis. The side effect belongs on the risk side. “But myocarditis is a very rare side effect that can be treated very well,” emphasizes Wiegand. Therefore, it does not affect the overall benefit-risk profile. In addition, heart muscle inflammation is a danger that the Covid 19 disease itself also entails – and to a much greater extent. This has already been shown in various studies.
“We are developing more than just an omicron vaccine”
According to the Moderna boss, the big challenge for the adults is now: to develop the second-generation vaccine for the next season, which is adapted to the then prevailing clinical picture. There is always talk of the “omicron strategy”, says Wiegand. Of course, the company started developing an adapted vaccine in November when the details of the new variant became known. The Omikron vaccine is currently being clinically tested. Nevertheless, the Moderna boss in Germany points out: “We are developing more than just an omicron vaccine.” The research data also made it possible to form vaccine combinations. Because the rapid spread of the omicron variant has overtaken the vaccine manufacturers Moderna and Biontech – even if the mRNA technology enables relatively quick adjustments. Experts such as the virologist Alexander Kekulé formulated it very drastically: “We no longer need an omicron vaccine.” The wave will “just rush through now”, the expert predicted back in January. And so it is clear: Anyone who has had omicrons does not need to be vaccinated against it.
More about the Omicron variant
Now it turns out that the peak of the omicron wave has apparently actually been passed. This means that the vaccine is definitely too late for the current season. But in preparation for the next autumn-winter season, it could become quite significant. Charité virologist Christian Drosten saw it that way too. He had originally spoken out clearly in favor of vaccination with a vaccine adapted to Omicron. Everyone may need an update vaccination. However, the expert is currently questioning whether it is worth switching completely to a new vaccine (NDR podcast, episode 111).
What we use to vaccinate against Corona in autumn
Precisely for this reason Wiegand sees the development at a crossroads. “It has not yet been decided whether there will actually be an omicron vaccine or a bivalent vaccine,” says the Moderna manager. For example, the bivalent vaccine could combine the omicron-specific with the current vaccine. The US manufacturer is currently doing very broad research on this. So-called bi- or trivalent vaccines could specifically attack several variants of Sars-CoV-2. Vaccine development schedule: The study results of the next few weeks would determine how the vaccine would be composed. Because, explains Wiegand: “The aim is to have a vaccine against many variants.” From late summer, Moderna wants to “make the right vaccination offer for the autumn-winter season” available to people – with an optimized vaccine, a second-generation vaccine.
Do we need the renewed booster for everyone?
Experts agree that after a possibly relaxed summer with low case numbers, infections will increase again. Who therefore needs a fourth vaccination is currently being discussed in specialist circles. Current study data, for example from Israel, tends to speak against a fourth vaccination for everyone. Because the boost for the immune system is limited. “According to our assessment, the clinical picture is developing in such a way that a seasonal vaccination will probably make sense,” explains Wiegand. Similar to what we know from influenza. “With the vaccination offers that are constantly being adapted, we will be able to continue the best possible protection – both for the individual and for society as a whole.” That sounds like a booster for everyone every autumn. It is still too early to make a decision here. According to the Moderna boss, more data would be needed for this, which is currently being collected. On the other hand, it is clear: With Omikron, the vaccination protection decreases faster than with the previous variants. After six to eight months, it makes sense for certain groups of people to reinforce it with a refresher.
Omicron Boosters: Too Late or Just Right?
If the starting shot for the omicron vaccination actually falls in the summer, “then it can still be useful to vaccinate yourself against omicron again,” explained the virologist Christian Drosten in the NDR podcast (episode 111) – “if we assume that the virus will continue to drift in the same direction.” However, we do not know that at the moment. In the current phase of transition to endemics, however, you have to follow the drift, i.e. the development of the virus. The interval after the basic immunization could turn out to be particularly important. If someone gets an omicron update vaccination, the update effect could be much stronger if at the time of this vaccination the antibodies from the first three doses have already dropped significantly, i.e. if that was a long time ago. Exactly in this situation in any case there are many people in Germany in the summer. For them, the adapted vaccine could come at the right time – depending on how the virus changes.
The vision of the super vaccine against respiratory diseases
The difficult exercise for the future is to generate a universal vaccine against Sars-CoV-2. The virologist Kekulé already addressed this in his podcast and thinks it is possible. He would be very happy about positive news from this direction here, he said. Moderna has announced news in this regard for the late summer. The long-term plans there go even further. “We are working towards a single vaccine against various respiratory diseases – our vision is that we can combine the Covid vaccination with that against influenza and RSV,” says Wiegand as an outlook for the future. “With this we could fight the three viruses that attack the respiratory tract seasonally.”
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