The world’s largest manufacturers of Covid-19 vaccines announced on Friday that they were working to rapidly screen their vaccines and adapt them to a new and highly mutated strain of the virus.
The World Health Organization said Friday the new strain, dubbed Omicron, is a “worrying variant” that could pose a higher risk of reinfection than previous mutations of the virus.
“We understand the concerns of experts and immediately initiated investigations into variant B.1.1.529,” said the company.
Pfizer and BioNTech expect further data from laboratory tests in two weeks at the latest.
“These data will provide more information on whether B.1.1.529 could be an escape variant that could require our vaccine to be modified if the variant spreads globally,” the companies said.
Pfizer and BioNTech said they can customize their mRNA vaccine within six weeks and start shipping within 100 days if an escape variant is identified.
Johnson & Johnson on Friday said they are already testing their vaccine against Omicron.
“We are closely monitoring newly emerging COVID-19 virus strains with variations of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein and are already testing the effectiveness of our vaccine against the new and rapidly spreading variant, which was first discovered in southern Africa,” said J&J .
AstraZeneca said the variant is also being investigated. Its vaccine platform, developed with Oxford University, enables rapid response to new mutations as they occur, the company said.
“AstraZeneca is also doing research in places where the variant has been identified, namely in Botswana and Eswatini,” the company said.
Modern, said in a statement on Friday that the combination of mutations in the variant “poses a significant potential risk of accelerating the decline in natural and vaccine-induced immunity”.
“A booster dose of an approved vaccine is the only strategy currently available to boost declining immunity,” the company said.
Moderna said it would test three booster candidates against Omicron, also in higher doses. The company will also develop a booster dose specific to the variant.
“We have said from the start that it is imperative that we be proactive in fighting the pandemic as the virus evolves,” said Stephane Bancel, CEO of Moderna, in a statement. “The mutations in the Omicron variant are worrying and for several days we have been working as quickly as possible to implement our strategy to combat this variant.”
The variant that originated in South Africa has around 50 mutations, more than 30 of which are on the spike protein, which enables the virus to bind to human cells. The spread of the new variant is still in its infancy, and it is not yet clear how difficult it would be to infect a vaccinated person.
Several European and Asian nations have suspended flights from southern Africa in response to the variant. The UK suspended flights from six countries in the region on Thursday and the European Commission – the executive body of the European Union – has asked all 27 member states to suspend travel from southern Africa.
White House senior medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci said Friday that the US is working with South African scientists to determine the molecular makeup of the variant so that laboratory tests can be carried out. These tests would help determine whether or not the variant can evade the vaccines’ antibody protection.
Fauci said data would help determine whether or not the US should put in place similar travel restrictions. The Biden government later confirmed Friday that the US would restrict entry to non-citizens from eight South African nations.
The strength of Covid vaccines against infection has decreased over time, although they are still highly effective at preventing hospitalizations and deaths. A study published in Science this month found that the Pfizer vaccine’s effectiveness in preventing infections decreased from 86% to 43% from February through October. Moderna’s vaccine decreased from 89% to 58% and J & J’s vaccine decreased from 86% to 13% effectiveness against infections in the same study.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last Friday approved booster vaccines of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines for all adults. Pfizer’s booster dose was 95% effective in preventing symptomatic infection in people who had no evidence of previous infection in a clinical study of 10,000 subjects 16 years and older, the company said. Moderna is still conducting a clinical study on the effectiveness of its booster dose.