Vaccine makers are rushing to explore ways to tailor their coronavirus shots to combat the newly identified omicron variant, which is prompting countries around the world to tighten restrictions to stop the spread.
Germany’s BioNTech and its partner Pfizer, as well as U.S. firm Moderna, are working to understand what level of protection their current vaccines offer and how to adapt them amid concern the variant’s mutations may make it more transmissible and evade the body’s immune response.
Moderna has mobilized hundreds of people as it anticipates its existing vaccine could lose some efficacy against the newest variant, though it would still provide a level of protection, and a new version could be available by next year if needed, executives said.
BioNTech said in a statement Monday that development had started to move as quickly as possible while scientists simultaneously research the need for a new shot, Bloomberg News reported, and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla told CNBC a new template was made to develop a vaccine for the variant.
The two companies, which are conducting clinical trials to test the vaccine against other variants, said last week they could make a tailor-made vaccine in about 100 days if necessary, “subject to regulatory approval.”
As researchers race to understand the omicron variant, some countries have closed borders and others tightened public health restrictions. The Biden administration is encouraging more people to get booster shots in the meantime.
Since the omicron variant’s detection prompted travel bans on the southern region of Africa, many public health officials have highlighted the disparity in vaccinations between richer and poorer nations, stressing the need to inoculate the underserved to boost the world’s protection.
Moderna – which said Friday it would advance an omicron-specific booster candidate – “should know about the ability of the current vaccine to provide protection in the next couple of weeks,” according to its chief medical officer Paul Burton, speaking Sunday on the BBC. “We’ve mobilized hundreds of people,” he said. “If we have to make a brand new vaccine, I think that’s going to be early 2022 before that’s really going to be available in large quantities.”
Although the biotech company expects “a loss of vaccine efficacy to prevent disease,” the omicron variant would not subvert all the protection from the shot, Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said in another television interview Monday. He added it would take months to start shipping a version specific to the omicron variant.
“I don’t believe many people would have predicted such a big jump in evolution in one variant,” Bancel told CNBC. “We need to get more data to confirm this but it seems to be much more infectious” than the delta variant.
The World Health Organization warned Monday that the omicron variant poses “very high” global risk and is likely to spread, recommending that governments around the world improve their ability to sequence coronavirus variants and speed up vaccinations.
Cases of the new variant, which has a high number of mutations, have popped up in Europe, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong and other countries since scientists in South Africa first detected it last week.
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