Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) and Moderna (NSDQ:MRNA) are planning to research their vaccines’ effectiveness against the highly mutated Omicron variant (B.1.1.529), which is behind a surge in infections in Johannesburg, South Africa. If needed, they plan to create new versions of their vaccines.
The Omicron variant has more than 30 changes to the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.
“I don’t think the result would be the vaccines don’t protect,” Pfizer CEO Dr. Albert Bourla told CNBC. It is possible, however, that the vaccines could offer less protection against Omicron than other variants such as Delta.
“Given the large number of mutations, it is highly possible that the efficacy of the vaccine – all of them — is going down,” Stéphane Bancel, Moderna CEO, told CNBC.
If they decide it is necessary, Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech (NSDQ:BNTX) could develop a new vaccine based on Omicron in under 100 days.
Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have similar plans.
On November 26, Pfizer created a new DNA template for a potential COVID-19 vaccine based on the Omicron variant. “It would be only in case we need it,” Bourla said.
Bourla also anticipates that the company’s investigational COVID-19 antiviral Paxlovid will also be effective against the variant.
Since emerging in South Africa, Omicron has spread to several other countries, including Australia, Germany and Canada.
South Africa, however, has fewer infections per 100,000 people than the U.S. or Europe.
“We need to get more data to confirm, but [Omicron] seems to be much more infectious than Delta,” said Stéphane Bancel, Moderna CEO.
Although researchers have sequenced the variant, relatively little is known about it apart from the fact it contributed to a rash of infections in greater Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city.
The World Health Organization has classified Omicron as a variant of concern.
President Biden has restricted travel between the U.S. and South Africa and seven other African countries. The European Union has taken similar measures.
In a media briefing today, Biden said that he did not anticipate the need for further lockdowns or intermittent travel restrictions in the long run. “I expect the new normal to be that everyone ends up getting vaccinated with the booster shot,” Biden said. Mass vaccination would reduce the spread of COVID-19, Biden said, while also acknowledging that the ramification of the Omicron variant on global infections remains unclear. “I hope then it’s not going to be fundamentally different than [variants we’ve seen] in the past,” Biden said.
Filed Under: Drug Discovery, Drug Discovery and Development, Infectious Disease