Acknowledging the growing concerns over the new strain, named omicron, which has been labeled as “variant of concern”, COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers have started investigations. They are willing to adapt their vaccine quickly if needed.
Omicron, which first emerged in South Africa, has about 50 mutations, more than 30 of which are on the spike protein that allows the virus to bind to human cells. The spread of the new variant is still in its early stages.
The companies said they understand the concern of experts and have immediately initiated investigations on variant B.1.1.529. Pfizer and BioNTech, as per reports, expect more data from lab tests in two weeks at the latest. “These data will provide more information about whether B.1.1.529 could be an escape variant that may require an adjustment of our vaccine if the variant spreads globally,” the companies told CNBC.
It has been noted that Pfizer and BioNTech can adapt their mRNA vaccine within six weeks and start shipping batches within 100 days if any escape variant is identified. Johnson&Johnson has also started testing their vaccine against the new strain omicron. “We are closely monitoring newly emerging COVID-19 virus strains with variations in the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein and are already testing the effectiveness of our vaccine against the new and rapidly spreading variant first detected in southern Africa,” J&J said.
Meanwhile, AstraZeneca and Moderna are also monitoring omicron. AstraZeneca is conducting research in locations – Botswana and Eswatini – where the new variant has been identified. Moderna said the combination of mutations in the variant represents a significant potential risk to accelerate the waning of natural and vaccine-induced immunity. “A booster dose of an unauthorized vaccine represents the only currently available strategy for boosting waning immunity,” it said. Stephane Bancel, Moderna CEO, in a statement said it is imperative that they are proactive as the virus evolves. “The mutations in the omicron variant are concerning and for several days, we have been moving as fast as possible to execute our strategy to address this variant.”
It should be noted that the strength of COVID vaccines against the infection has declined over time, but they are still highly effective at preventing hospitalization and death. A study published in the journal Science this month stated that Pfizer vaccine’s efficacy at preventing infection declined from 86% to 43% from February to October. Moderna’s vaccine dropped from 89% to 58% and J&J’s vaccine fell from 86% to 13% efficacy against infection in the same study.
To prevent total shutdown to economies due to the new strain, a number of European and Asian countries have suspended flights.