COVID vaccine makers rush to the labs as Omicron concerns go viral

AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna, others pivot efforts to rework boosters — with higher dosage, new formulations and variant-specific shots

Pfizer and BioNTech expect to rework their current mRNA vaccine within six weeks, and start shipping them within 100 days, to combat Omicron. Pic: https://www.pfizer.com/

Omicron, the latest strain of COVID virus to be discovered and named, has left the world in a spin. Even as healthcare experts are examining its virulence and governments are looking at ways to curb its spread, vaccine makers are working overtime to test their formulations on the deadly variant.

The strain B.1.1.529, first identified by South African researchers and declared a ‘variant of concern’ by the World Health Organization (WHO), is suspected to be far more infectious than its dreaded predecessors such as Beta and Delta. More worryingly, it is suspected to be resistant to existing coronavirus vaccines.

Also read: World on high alert as Omicron variant spreads to more countries

Pivoting their resources to address the new variant, drug majors such as Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca are working around their booster shots. Not only are they testing higher doses, but also developing new boosters that anticipate mutations of the virus. Also on the anvil are boosters that specifically target the Omicron. And this is being carried out in quick time, as cases of the new strain have already cropped up in various parts of the world.

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How will Covishield and Covaxin fare?

AstraZeneca, whose Covishield vaccine has been widely administered in India, is ‘investigating’ the variant. The vaccine, developed jointly with Oxford University, is designed to be easily adapted to emerging mutations, the company pointed out.

“AstraZeneca is also already conducting research in locations where the variant has been identified, namely in Botswana and Eswatini,” it added.

Researchers at the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) have been quoted by media reports as saying mRNA vaccines may need to be tweaked to fight Omicron. However, there is no statement so far from ICMR and Bharat Biotech — which have jointly developed Covaxin, India’s only indigenous COVID vaccine — on steps being taken to address the new strain.

Pfizer, Moderna, J&J get battle-ready

US-based Pfizer and BioNTech have said they can rework their current mRNA vaccine within six weeks, and start shipping them within 100 days, to combat Omicron. Those who have taken two shots of the Pfizer- BioNTech vaccine, and a booster, will possibly be given an Omicron-specific fourth jab.  “We understand the concern of experts and have immediately initiated investigations on variant B.1.1.529,” the companies said.

Lab tests will arrive within a fortnight, they said, adding: “These data will provide more information about whether B.1.1.529 could be an escape variant that may require an adjustment of our vaccine if the variant spreads globally.”

Johnson & Johnson is said to be already testing its vaccine against the new strain. “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,” said a company statement.

Moderna has said it will test three booster candidates against Omicron, of which one would be a higher dosage. It is also examining an Omicron-specific shot.  “From the beginning, we have said that as we seek to defeat the pandemic, it is imperative that we are proactive as the virus evolves,” said Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel in a statement. “The mutations in the Omicron variant are concerning and for several days, we have been moving as fast as possible to execute our strategy to address this variant.”

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