A recent study has shown that the new coronavirus Omicron variant may resist the protection offered by the Pfizer vaccine despite a World Health Organisation (WHO) official saying that the vaccines should work.
Research from the Africa Health Research Institute in Durban found that the Omicron variant, first detected in South Africa at the end of November, partly escapes the protection offered by the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
“The clinical implications of these laboratory data need to be determined. It is likely that lesser vaccine-induced protection against infection and disease would be the result,” Professor Willem Hanekom of the Africa Health Research Institute said in a statement.
In some of the samples, researchers detected a 41-fold decrease in the levels of neutralising antibodies against this particular variant in comparison with those generated against one of the earlier mutations of the virus. However, it remains unclear how this will impact real-life protection for people with severe cases and symptoms.
Current vaccines still effective
Hanekom stressed that most vaccinologists “agree that the current vaccines will still protect against severe disease and death in the face of Omicron infection,” and that it is “therefore critical that everyone should be vaccinated.” Researchers also highlighted that these results support claims that booster doses will be beneficial.
The study also found that people who have been previously infected and were then fully vaccinated are less likely to be infected with the new variant or suffer from severe symptoms.
The WHO’s Dr Mike Ryan echoed the statement that the existing vaccines should still protect anyone fully vaccinated who contracts the Omicron variant from severe illness as a result of an infection, including hospitalisation and death.
“We have highly effective vaccines that have proved effective against all the variants so far, in terms of severe disease and hospitalisation, and there is no reason to expect that it wouldn’t be so” for Omicron, he said in an interview with AFP news agency.
More data on how the Pfizer vaccines protect against the new variant is expected in the coming days. No initial data on the protection of the Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and other shots has been published yet, however, both companies have said they are testing the vaccines’ efficacy.
Severity of Omicron
Ryan said that initial data suggested that Omicron – the most heavily-mutated version of coronavirus detected since the start of the pandemic – did not make people sicker than the Delta and previous strains, adding that “if anything, the direction is towards less severity.”
This was supported by early reports from hospitals in southern Africa, where patients infected with the Omicron variant so far show less severe signed of illness than other strains of Covid-19.
However, more real-time data is needed to paint an overall picture of how the variant could affect the global progression of the virus when it comes to transmissibility and the severity of symptoms following an infection.
To date, a total of 212 coronavirus cases of the Omicron variant have been confirmed in the EU and European Economic Area (EU/EEA), according to the latest update from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) on 6 December.
In Belgium, 18 cases of the Omicron variant have been officially confirmed, although this number is growing daily as some thirty have been linked to the variant.