Omicron, found in Europe 11 days ago, jolts markets on vaccine fears

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EU (Reuters) – The chief executive of drugmaker Moderna (MRNA.O) set off fresh alarm bells in financial markets on Tuesday with a warning that existing COVID-19 vaccines would be less effective against the new Omicron variant than they have been against Delta.

However, European Medicines Agency (EMA) executive director Emer Cooke told the European Parliament that, even if the new variant becomes more widespread, existing vaccines will continue to provide protection.

Andrea Ammon, chair of the European Centre for Disease prevention and Control (ECDC), said the 42 cases of the variant so far confirmed in 10 European Union countries were mild or without symptoms, although in younger age groups.

Major European stock markets, spooked by fears that vaccine resistance may prolong the two-year-old pandemic, were down about 1% at around 1300 GMT.

U.S. stock index futures were down more than 1%.

Crude oil futures shed just under 3%, while Tokyo’s Nikkei index closed down 1.6%

“There is no world, I think, where (the effectiveness) is the same level . . . we had with Delta,” Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel told the Financial Times.

“I think it’s going to be a material drop. I just don’t know how much because we need to wait for the data. But all the scientists I’ve talked to . . . are like ‘this is not going to be good’.”

The University of Oxford said there was no evidence that current vaccines would not prevent severe disease from Omicron, but that it was ready to rapidly engineer an updated version of its shot, developed with AstraZeneca (AZN.L), if necessary.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said “we think it’s overwhelmingly likely” that booster shots would continue to protect against severe disease.