Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the world raced Friday to contain a new coronavirus variant potentially more dangerous than the one that has fueled relentless waves of infection on every continent. The WHO on Friday said that the actual risks of Omicron are not understood, but early evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection compared with other highly transmissible variants. That means people who contracted COVID-19 and recovered could be subject to catching it again. It could take weeks to know if current vaccines are less effective against it.
Medical experts, including the WHO, warned against any overreaction before the variant was better understood. But a jittery world feared the worst nearly two years after the tenacious virus emerged and triggered a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people around the globe.
Omicron has now been seen in travelers to Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel as well as in southern Africa.
Position of Vaccine-makers in view of emergence of ‘Omicron’
The new heavily mutated Covid-19 spreads quickly and causes severe disease or decrease the effectiveness of vaccines or treatments. The last coronavirus variant to receive this label was delta, which now accounts for virtually all Covid cases in the United States.
“Researchers found more than 30 mutations on a protein, called spike, on the surface of the omicron coronavirus. The spike protein is the chief target of antibodies that the immune system produces to fight a Covid-19 infection. So many mutations raised concerns that omicron’s spike might be able to evade antibodies produced by either a previous infection or a vaccine,” a report in New York Times said.
However, vaccines are still expected to provide some protection against omicron as they stimulate not only antibodies but immune cells that can attack infected cells.
Novavax Inc said on Friday it had started working on a version of its COVID-19 vaccine to target the variant detected in South Africa and would have the shot ready for testing and manufacturing in the next few weeks. Novavax’s vaccine received its first emergency use approval earlier this month in Indonesia followed by the Philippines.
The company’s Covid-19 shot contains an actual version of the virus’ spike protein that cannot cause disease but can trigger the immune system. The vaccine developer said it had started developing a spike protein specifically based on the known genetic sequence of the variant, B.1.1.529. “The initial work will take a few weeks,” a company spokesperson said.
In a statement on Friday, 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 authorized vaccine represents the only currently available strategy for boosting waning immunity,” Moderna said, adding that it will test three booster candidates against omicron, including at a higher dosage level.
The company will also develop a booster dose specific to the variant. “From the beginning, we have said that as we seek to defeat the pandemic, it is imperative that we are proactive as the virus evolves,” said Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel in a statement. “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,” he said.
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said Pfizer has already begun working on a version of its Covid-19 vaccine specifically targeting the new Omicron variant in case the current inoculation is not effective against the latest strain. Bourla told CNBC that the US drugmarker on Friday began testing the current vaccine against the Omicron variant, which was first reported in South Africa.
BioNTech SE said on Friday it expects more data on a worrying new coronavirus variant detected in South Africa within two weeks to help determine whether its vaccine produced with partner Pfizer Inc (PFE.N) would have to be reworked.
“We understand the concern of experts and have immediately initiated investigations on variant B.1.1.529,” the companies said.
Johnson & Johnson
Johnson & Johnson on Friday said that they are “closely monitoring” the newly emerging Covid-19 virus. “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.
AstraZeneca on Friday said that it is also investigating the variant. “AstraZeneca is also already conducting research in locations where the variant has been identified, namely in Botswana and Eswatini,” the company said.
(With agency inputs)