Pharma pledges rapid response to Omicron COVID variant

With governments around the world announcing measures to curb the new B.1.1.529 variant of COVID-19 – now christened Omicron – leading vaccine manufacturers have said they are poised to develop new shots if needed.

News of the new variant emerged last week, and has resulted in travel bans being imposed on various African countries by the US, EU and UK, among others.

The UK – which has now recorded its first cases of Omicron – has said it will reimpose mandatory face masks in public places and require PCR tests for everyone entering the UK.

Omicron has more mutations affecting the spike protein targeted by vaccines than any other strain identified to date – up to 32 mutations versus eight for the Delta variant – but its not clear how that will affect the transmissibility and virulence of the virus.

BioNTech said in a statement that it is waiting on more data from lab tests, due in the next couple of weeks, to see if Omicron could be an “escape variant” – a strain of SARS-CoV-2 that could evade the immune responses stimulated by current vaccines.

Along with partner Pfizer, it has pledged has to have a new mRNA vaccine candidate ready for testing within six weeks and initial batches shipping within 100 days if testing shows that Omicron will need a different sequence.

Moderna meanwhile said it has started work on an Omicron-directed version of its vaccine called mRNA-1273.529, is testing higher dose booster of mRNA-1273, and has two multi-valent booster candidates in the clinic that are designed to anticipate mutations in SARS-CoV-2.

Other vaccine manufacturers have also responded to the new variant. AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson said they are already running tests to see how well their adenovirus vector-based vaccines cope with the mutations, and Novavax says it is also working on a B.1.1.529 version of its recombinant protein-based shot.

Valneva meanwhile has said its whole inactivated vaccine could have an advantage as it stimulates the immune system to recognise other viral proteins as well as spike, so could be less vulnerable to escape variants.

The mRNA vaccines are likely the easiest to update as they are based on a genetic sequence that can be modified relatively easily in the lab, but still need to be scaled up and tested to allow mass production.

If B.1.1529 can evade current vaccines it will be a worrying development in the pandemic, but experts have also pointed out that is also possible that the mutations could make the virus less virulent.

There has been some encouraging news on that front from South Africa, where a number of initial cases were identified, with one clinician reporting that symptoms tend to be mild, but also different from what has become recognised as typical with the original SARS-CoV-2 and earlier variants.

None of the patients lost taste or smell, Dr Angelique Coetzee told The Telegraph, although most cases so far have been seen in younger people – roughly half of whom were vaccinated – and there is little sign yet how Omicron may affect the elderly.

The variant made up around three quarters of COVID-19 cases detected in Gauteng province on November 22, according to local media reports.

The travel bans imposed on South Africa have led to anger among some in the country who accuse other countries of punishing it for having the technological capacity to identify the new variant.

Fred Hutch biostatistician Trevor Bedford, a specialist in vaccine and infectious disease research, tweeted that the genetic profile of Omicron suggests “an extended period or circulation in a geography with poor genomic surveillance,” which is “certainly not South Africa.”

Bedford also said that the mutations in the spike protein “are concerning in terms of predicted immune escape coupled with increased transmissibility.”

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