Annual COVID vaccines may be needed, pharmaceutical CEO says

Annual COVID vaccinations may be needed to continue fighting against the coronavirus’ variants, the CEO of Johnson & Johnson said Tuesday.

“Unfortunately, as (the virus) spreads it can also mutate,” Alex Gorsky told CNBC’s Meg Tirrell on Tuesday during the network’s Healthy Returns Spotlight event. “Every time it mutates, it’s almost like another click of the dial, so to speak, where we can see another variant, another mutation that can have an impact on its ability to fend off antibodies or to have a different kind of response not only to a therapeutic but also to a vaccine.”

Last week, Johnson & Johnson asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for an emergency use authorization for its vaccine, which could happen before the end of February.

Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine appears to protect against COVID-19 with one shot — not as strong as some two-shot rivals — but still potentially helpful for a world in dire need of more doses.

However, on Monday, the head of the World Health Organization said the emergence of new COVID-19 variants has raised questions about whether existing vaccines will work, calling it “concerning news” the vaccines developed so far may be less effective against the variant first detected in South Africa.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a media briefing that South Africa’s decision on Sunday to suspend its vaccination campaign using the AstraZeneca vaccine is “a reminder that we need to do everything we can to reduce circulation of the virus with proven public health measures.”

However, on Wednesday, the South African government announced it will give the unapproved Johnson & Johnson vaccine to front-line health care workers starting next week.

Ghebreyesus said it was increasingly clear vaccine manufacturers would need to tweak their existing shots to address the ongoing genetic evolution of the coronavirus, saying booster shots would most likely be necessary, especially because new variants of the virus are now spreading globally and appear likely to become the predominant strains.

COVID-19 vaccines developed by Novavax, Pfizer and BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson also appear to be less effective against the strain first identified in South Africa, although they may prevent severe disease.

Johnson & Johnson said last week in the U.S. and seven other countries, the single-shot vaccine was 66% effective overall at preventing moderate to severe illness, and much more protective — 85% — against the most serious symptoms.