The chief medical officer of Moderna, Dr. Paul Burton, shared his perspective of the pandemic Monday.
What You Need To Know
Dr. Paul Burton is the chief medical officer of Moderna
The CMO said reducing COVID-19 boosters to annual vaccinations will be a positive simplification for the public
North Carolina played critical role in trials and vaccine research
Pandemic showed reasons why society needs transparent and simplistic communication about complex medical issues
He talked with Spectrum News 1 in a question and answer session about the future of COVID-19 vaccinations, public messaging, North Carolina’s research, fighting vaccine apathy, overcoming supply chain issues and why the pandemic revealed a need for conversational medical language:
Spectrum News 1: Dr. Burton, recently your omicron specific boosters were released in conjunction with flu season to give people immunization against the original strain of COVID, the sub-variants of omicron and to time it up with the onset of influenza transmission. People have been keeping up with a lot since the announcement of your two-shot-series until now. Sometimes that leads to a bit of apathy with the public. How do you as CMO fight against vaccine apathy?
Dr. Paul Burton: It’s a great question. I think it’s something we’re all struggling with. We all want to put COVID behind us. The reality is that this is a virus that continues to mutate. While our original Spikevax is effective against even these new omicron strains and protects against hospitalization, the problem is it doesn’t last for long because of the antibody levels, and they’re less effective. To counter it, what we have had to do is come out with a new updated vaccine. That’s what we have now. We hope to be able to get this to a once-yearly booster, and I think we will be able to do that. Hopefully, this will help people as well as they think about what to do as they get ready for the winter.
SN1: Let’s stick with what you just said a second ago. There is a lot of discussion with COVID seemingly continuing to be a part of our lives. What is your recommendation to doctors, medical providers, public health officials and the general public about making these COVID-19 shots an annual vaccine?
Burton: I am certain we will not be able to eradicate the virus that causes COVID. I just don’t think that’s possible. It continues to mutate. Even our original vaccine becomes less effective against it. I believe very clearly that we will have to have at least a once-yearly booster vaccine. Now the reason we’ve had to have so many boosters in the last year is that the virus has mutated. It has changed drastically. By being able to update the vaccine we can make one that truly is directed against a circulating strain. That’s what we’ve done here. I think it’s good news because I do think we can get to a yearly booster. I think that will be a lot more manageable for people, but we should not let our guard down. This is not a virus that’s going away. It’s continuing to mutate. We have to be vigilant for that.
SN1: The evolving nature of COVID-19 comes with the ebb and flow of guidance at the local, state and federal levels, and oftentimes those didn’t always mesh together. Even CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky admitted they could have done better with their guidance. How do you feel American public health officials and elected leaders did with their messaging about COVID-19?
Burton: I think they did the best job they could. It’s a virus that has changed so drastically and so dramatically and so frequently and what we’ve tried to do is give the best advice to as many people as possible, but it’s probably time to take a pause and say where are we with this virus. I think the dark days of the pandemic are over, but we’re not out of it. We are not still not in that endemic phase. We can get there, but the only way to do that is to get vaccinated. Probably only a third of Americans have boosters. (Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show slightly more than 35% of Americans have received their first boosters.) We now have great boosters adapting for the circulating strain of the virus. We can’t just pretend it’s over. It’s not. We have to get boosted and get protected, particularly now as we are going into the winter.
SN1: I recently saw where the White House stated only about 35% of Americans received a booster. Considering how far we are into 2022 and when the pandemic began, given your background and your 16 years at Johnson & Johnson, what lessons have you drawn from the pandemic?
Burton: I think for me, I’ve learned that the best course of action is to collaborate, work with governments, work with regulators, to work with other companies, to share information and to provide it in a simple format that the public can understand, that we can all understand and to keep the trust of the public. We’ve tried to do that. We have great vaccines. There’s just been so much misinformation, it confuses people. It won’t go away any time soon. We now have a real chance at getting a once a year shot that’s going to be completely directed at the circulating strain. We’re in a good position. Let’s not lose this position of confidence.”
SN1: One lesson we all have learned is how the supply chain has affected all of us. For example, parents might point to the baby formula shortage. Recently concerning Moderna, there was a bit of a holdup at your production facility in Bloomington, Indiana run by Catalent. (Catalent is a contracted manufacturer for Moderna.) Some of those (bivalent) batches were not released due to ongoing FDA inspection and didn’t receive Emergency Use Authorization. Although 10 of those batches have been released. Some of that is out of your control. You have to put the trust in some of these companies. What lessons have you drawn as well from bottlenecks due to supply chain issues?
Burton: Last year was certainly an issue of getting production, getting supply out to people. This year fortunately, it’s been a lot easier and is a lot better. We have adapted so quickly. When you are trying to pivot to this quickly and adapt to the virus that rapidly, things like that do occur. We’re back on track, we’re confident that we can absolutely deliver the 70 million doses here for the U.S. alone and other doses, hundreds of millions of doses around the world. I think we’re in a good position, but as you say we never stop learning. This is a pandemic like no other and we never stop learning from it.
SN1: Here in North Carolina you housed some of your Phase III Clinical Trials at the University of North Carolina campus. Dr. David Montefiori at Duke University studied the effectiveness of your two-shot series coupled with the booster. What role do you see North Carolina playing in immunizing the world?
Burton: Look, I think North Carolina, you mention Dr. Montefiori, we worked with his lab very closely. Clearly world-class universities, world-leading universities in research. I am very thankful personally to all that they have done, and I think we all owe them a great debt of gratitude for helping us, and helping other researchers around the world try and conquer this pandemic.
SN1: There were public health officials who had to correct disinformation, including from our former president, for the public. How do you see the pandemic as an example for why we need more medical literacy?
Burton: I think that’s a great question. This will not be the last pandemic we face. I think even within COVID there will continue to be other waves, and we can’t let our guard down. We’ve seen other infectious diseases spike now around the country as well. For me, look, I’d say we shouldn't be scared of it. We have technology now that can adapt quickly, that can bring vaccines, (and) can bring diagnostic tests quickly to people. We have to just keep collaborating, with great research in North Carolina, throughout the United States and the world, and have dialogue. We can’t put our heads in the sand and pretend things don’t exist. We have to have dialogue going and just do the best we can, and trusting each other with transparent data and with the best medicines that we can bring to people.