Pharmaceutical firms are working to tweak vaccines against new Omicron variant

Several pharmaceutical companies which produce Covid vaccines have told how they are optimistic vaccines can be quickly altered to combat against the new strain of coronavirus. 

The comments come as Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there is “huge international concern” for the new variant, named Omicron. 

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Moderna, Pfizer and AstraZeneca have all been working on developing ways to change the current vaccine, in anticipation of new variants, which means a new vaccine could be distributed in just a few months time. 

Here is what you need to know about the Omicron variant, and what pharmaceutical companies have said about their response. 

What is the Omicron variant? 

The strain was first identified in South African and has quickly been categorised as the “variant of concern” by the World Health Organisation (WHO),

The WHO warned early evidence suggests Omicron has an “increased risk of reinfection” and its rapid spread in South Africa suggests it has a “growth advantage”.

The Covid-19 mutation, also known as B.1.1.529, was described by Mr Javid as potentially more transmissible, making existing vaccines less effective, and possibly hindering one of the UK’s Covid treatments, Ronapreve.

The UK has now shut its borders to six countries, South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia to limit its spread. However, the variant has already reached Belgium, and MPs are calling for stricter measures to ensure it does not enter the UK. 

The EU, US and Canada all followed Britain’s move to impose travel restrictions on visitors from southern Africa ahead of the WHO adding the strain, to its highest category for concerning variants.

SAGE advisor Professor John Edmunds described the ongoing uncertainty and rapid spread as causing a “very, very, very difficult situation”.

Will vaccines work against Omicron? 

The main pharmaceutical companies rolling out vaccines in the UK and around the world have suggested that a vaccine could be produced and trialled efficiently within as little as 100 days. 

What Pfizer said

Pfizer and BioNTech said that in the event of a variant which could escape the effects of the vaccines, the firm expects “to be able to develop and produce a tailor-made vaccine against that variant in approximately 100 days, subject to regulatory approval”.

What AstraZeneca said 

AstraZeneca said it has the ability to respond quickly to new variants, and is already undertaking research in affected areas where the Omicron mutation is spreading. 

The UK-based firm said it has “developed, in close collaboration with Oxford University, a vaccine platform that enables us to respond quickly to new variants that may emerge” and is “already conducting research in locations where the variant has been identified”.

It is also testing its antibody combination drug against the new variant and is “hopeful” it “will retain efficacy since it comprises two potent antibodies with different and complementary activities against the virus”.

Director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, seemed quietly optimistic when addressing concerns over the current vaccines’ use on the Omicron variant.

He added that a new vaccine to counteract Omicron could begin “very rapidly” if required.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that most of the mutations are in similar regions seen in other variants so far, adding: “That tells you that despite those mutations existing in other variants the vaccines have continued to prevent serious disease as we’ve moved through Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta.

“At least from a speculative point of view we have some optimism that the vaccine should still work against a new variant for serious disease but really we need to wait several weeks to have that confirmed.

“It’s extremely unlikely that a reboot of a pandemic in a vaccinated population like we saw last year is going to happen.”

“The processes of how one goes about developing a new vaccine are increasingly well-oiled, so if it’s needed that is something that could be moved very rapidly.”

What Moderna said 

Moderna said it has been undertaking a “comprehensive strategy” since earlier this year, to anticipate new variants of concern.

“This strategy includes three levels of response should the currently authorized 50 µg (microgram) booster dose of mRNA-1273 prove insufficient to boost waning immunity against the Omicron variant.”

What Novavax said

Novavax said it has also taken precautionary measures in recent months and is already beginning to test a new vaccine. 

 “Already initiated development of a new recombinant spike protein based on the known genetic sequence of B.1.1.529 and will have it ready to begin testing and manufacturing within the next few weeks,” it said in a statement. 

Should I get my booster jab?

Brits are still being advised to take their booster jab, as other variants continue to spread around the UK. 

SAGE advisor Professor Calum Semple told BBC Breakfast: “If you can slow the virus coming into the country because you’re timed for the booster campaign to get ahead of it, and it (then) leaves the scientists to see if there is anything to worry about, which it doesn’t seem it.

“The virus will get here by hook or crook, eventually, it will come here as people are asymptomatic, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and slow it down.”

He added that everyone should continue to exercise the greatest degree of caution and continue wearing masks and sanitising your hands. 

“I feel particularly uncomfortable on public transport. I’m pro-mask in the shops and public transport. We still have high levels of coronavirus but the vaccines are working,” he said.

Professor Brendan Wren, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said people should “stay calm and not overreact”, adding that scientists can “easily modify vaccines to meet new variants”.

Striking an optimistic tone in the Daily Mail, he wrote: “In the arms race against the virus, humanity is winning – and we are well prepared. This is not the last time another variant will emerge.

“In the meantime, it is vital to remember to stay calm and not overreact.”