USA – The world’s major Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers have announced that they are working quickly to investigate and adapt their vaccines to a new and highly mutated strain of the virus.
The South African variant has about 50 mutations, more than 30 of which are on the spike protein, which allows the virus to bind to human cells. The new variant’s spread is still in its early stages, and it’s unclear how severe an infection would be in a vaccinated person.
BioNTech SE has announced that it had begun work on a vaccine tailored to Omicron, the concerning new coronavirus variant discovered in South Africa, claiming that it could produce and ship an updated version of its vaccine within 100 days.
The German biotechnology firm is already investigating whether the vaccine it developed with US drugmaker Pfizer is effective against the variant known as Omicron, which has raised concerns due to its high number of mutations and early indications that it may be transmitting more quickly.
The development of an adapted vaccine is part of the company’s standard procedure for new variants, according to BioNTech, which manufactures vaccines alongside Pfizer.
“The first steps of developing a potential new vaccine overlap with the research necessary in order to evaluate whether a new shot will be needed,” read part of the company’s statement.
The World Health Organization has warned that the variant posed a very high global risk of infection surges, but that more research was needed to assess its ability to evade immunity induced by vaccines and previous infections, even as more countries reported cases, prompting border closures.
As a result of the variant, several European and Asian countries have suspended flights from southern Africa.
The United Kingdom suspended flights from six countries in the region on Thursday, and the European Commission – the European Union’s executive body – ordered all 27 member countries to halt travel from southern Africa.
BioNTech has said that it expects more lab data in the next two weeks to help determine whether an Omicron-specific vaccine is required.
On Friday, Johnson & Johnson announced that they were already testing their vaccine against omicron.
“We are closely monitoring newly emerging COVID-19 virus strains with variations in the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein and are already testing the effectiveness of our vaccine against the new and rapidly spreading variant first detected in southern Africa,” J&J said.
Moderna, a competitor, has stated that it is redesigning its COVID-19 vaccine for future booster shots.
The US-based pharma company announced that it was testing three existing Covid-19 vaccine booster candidates against the Omicron variant and that it would develop a new variant-specific booster against it.
AstraZeneca has also stated that it is looking into the variant. According to the company, its vaccine platform developed in collaboration with Oxford University enables a quick response to new mutations as they emerge.
Existing COVID-19 vaccines, according to health experts, should be highly effective in preventing severe disease and hospitalization caused by the newly identified Omicron variant.