While the world is fearing a new Coronavirus wave with the newly detected variant of concern (VoC) 'Omicron', the scientific community and vaccine makers like Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, J&J and AstraZeneca are rushing to recalibrate their vaccines to fight the mutated virus.
The Pfizer-BioNTech combine—which made an effective m-RNA platform-based vaccine against the virus originated from Wuhan in China—says it is awaiting more data and laboratory results of the new variant within weeks to determine whether the vaccine needs to be reworked to fight Omicron. Pfizer's target is to commercially make the new vaccine available as fast as possible, within 100 days, if required.
Moderna, another U.S. company that brought out an mRNA vaccine against Covid-19, says it is testing three existing Covid-19 vaccine booster candidates against the Omicron variant. It is also working on an Omicron specific booster dose.
AstraZeneca, which co-developed Covishield with the Oxford Research Group, says its scientists are studying the new virus from Botswana and Eswatini, where the variant was identified last week. The company says its vaccine platform is capable of tweaking quickly against new mutations as they emerge. AstraZeneca's Covishield, made by Serum Institute of India, accounts for the majority of the Covid-19 vaccinations in India, which is yet to identify any Covid-19 patient with the new variant.
Johnson & Johnson, which recently got approval for emergency use for its single-shot vaccine, has said it is closely monitoring the newly emerging Covid-19 virus strain with variations in the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, and are already testing its effectiveness against the new and rapidly spreading variant first detected in southern Africa.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said it is early to ascertain the transmissibility, severity of disease, and effectiveness of existing vaccines and tests against the new variant. First identified from Botswana, Omicron has been detected in South Africa, Israel and Hong Kong. There could be suspected cases in Australia, Germany, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands.
The Omicron variant—which has about 50 mutations including about 30 in the spike protein itself—seems to have mutations seen in the Delta variant that are believed to increase transmissibility and mutations seen in the Beta and Delta variants that are believed to promote immune escape. The combination of mutations represents a significant potential risk to accelerate the waning of natural and vaccine-induced immunity, say Moderna scientists.
Researchers in South Africa and around the world are conducting studies to better understand many aspects of Omicron, and will continue to share the findings of these studies as they become available, says WHO. It is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible (e.g., more easily spread from person to person) compared to other variants, including Delta. The number of people testing positive has risen in areas of South Africa affected by this variant, but epidemiologic studies are underway to understand if it is because of Omicron or other factors.
WHO says it is not yet clear whether infection with Omicron causes more severe disease compared to infections with other variants, including the Delta variant. Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalisation in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of a specific infection with Omicron. There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those from other variants. The initially reported infections were among university students—younger individuals who tend to have a milder disease—but understanding the level of severity of the Omicron variant will take days to several weeks.
WHO says it is coordinating with a large number of researchers around the world to better understand Omicron. Studies currently underway or likely to be underway shortly include assessments of transmissibility, the severity of infection (including symptoms), the performance of vaccines and diagnostic tests, and the effectiveness of treatments.