The current coronavirus vaccines are likely to be less effective against the new Omicron variant of the virus, the CEO of American pharmaceutical company and vaccine developer Moderna has said.
The variant, which was first detected in South Africa, has prompted border closures and countries imposing stricter travel measures. Health experts are scientifically analysing the new strain and pharmaceutical companies are testing the current vaccines against Omicron mutations, a process that will take several weeks.
However, the head of Moderna Stéphane Bancel has already predicted that existing vaccines will be much less effective at tackling Omicron than earlier strains and warned that it would take months before pharmaceutical companies could manufacture modified vaccines that are tailored to this variant on a large scale.
“There is no world, I think, where the effectiveness is at the same level as we had with the Delta variant,” Bancel told the Financial Times. This could result in more people becoming sick or in hospital as a result of an infection.
On Monday, the World Health Organisation (WHO) already warned that Omicron has an unprecedented number of spike mutations (used by the virus to infect human cells), adding that “the overall global risk related to the new variant is assessed as very high.”
Bancel said that the rapid speed at which the variant is spreading in South Africa also suggested that the vaccines currently being administered across the world may need to be modified.
The necessary data is still being analysed (experts expect this will be made available in the next two weeks) to understand to what extent vaccines will need to be adapted. “But they will probably need to be adapted, all the scientists I have spoken to agree on that,” Bancel said.
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has said that it already has guidance in place for manufacturers that plan to modify vaccines to be effective against variants.
The agency also has a legal framework to authorise adapted vaccines more quickly, which would ensure they are approved within a 3-4 month period, EMA Executive Director Emer Cooke said in the European Parliament on Tuesday.
Both Moderna and Pfizer have said that if their messenger RNA coronavirus vaccines are not effective against the Omicron variant of the virus they will be able to adapt them within a few months to specifically target the new variant.
Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has already started work on a new version of its Covid vaccine that targets the Omicron strain specifically, in case the current vaccine is not effective against the new variant.
“We started working on a new vaccine on Friday. We did our first DNA model, which is the first step in developing a new vaccine,” Pfizer’s CEO Albert Bourla told CNBC, adding that if it was needed, a new vaccine would be ready in 95 days.
Moderna announced its intention to test three existing COVID-19 vaccine booster candidates against the Omicron variant and to develop a new variant-specific vaccine candidate against the variant.
Johnson & Johnson has also already started evaluating its one-dose vaccine for neutralising the Omicron variant. The company stated that it is ‘also pursuing an Omicron-specific variant vaccine.’
33 infections in EU
So far, 33 people have tested positive for the Omicron variant in the European Union, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC)’s update of the epidemiological situation in the continent on Monday.
It has already been detected in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Czech Republic, Austria and Denmark. All cases were linked to people who had recently travelled to Africa.
Although the variant is proving highly infectious, infected patients have so far had “extremely mild symptoms” according to Dr Angelique Coetzee, the South African doctor who first spotted the new variant. To date, no Covid-19 deaths have been linked to the new variant.
However, Coetzee stressed that more time is needed to understand the seriousness of the variant when vulnerable or older people become infected.