With the emergence of the omicron COVID-19 variant, which has now been detected in southern Africa, Europe, Israel and Hong Kong, a number of pharmaceutical firms are announcing they have plans in place to adapt their vaccines if necessary.
Scientists say there is still much to learn about the new variant, which the World Health Organization has listed a "variant of concern." They know that omicron is genetically distinct from previous variants including the beta and delta variants, but do not know if these genetic changes make it any more transmissible or dangerous. So far, there was no indication the variant causes more severe disease.
It will also likely take weeks to determine if omicron is more infectious and if existing vaccines would still be effective against it.
AstraZeneca, Moderna, Novavax and Pfizer say they already have plans to react. Pfizer and its partner BioNTech said they have been monitoring for potential variants capable of evading its mRNA vaccine.
"In the event that [a] vaccine-escape variant emerges, Pfizer and BioNTech expect to be able to develop and produce a tailor-made vaccine against that variant in approximately 100 days, subject to regulatory approval," Pfizer said in a statement.
Moderna said it been developing a strategy since early 2021 to respond to new variants of concern and has identified three response options. The first is doubling the dose of its current COVID-19 booster from 50 micrograms to 100 micrograms.
"The 100 [microgram] dose of mRNA-1273 has also recently been studied by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the U.S. and has generally resulted in the highest neutralizing titers against prior SARS-CoV-2 strains," Moderna said in a statement. The company says it has already dosed 306 people to test safety and efficacy.
Moderna said its second strategy is testing two multi-valent booster candidates that were designed to anticipate mutations like those found in the omicron variant.
The third strategy, according to Moderna, is to quickly develop an omicron-specific booster. The company said it has already been working on this for other variants, including Delta. Moderna said it has been able to get booster candidates to clinical testing within 60-90 days.
Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson are the only manufacturers with vaccines authorized for use in the U.S. The Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently authorized boosters for all adults and have OK'd a mix-and-match option, so fully vaccinated people can get whichever booster they want or is available.
In a statement to TEGNA a spokesperson at Janssen said, "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. We remain steadfast in the benefit the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine will provide to millions around the world."
Professor Andrew Pollard, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, which developed the AstraZeneca vaccine, expressed cautious optimism that existing vaccines could be effective at preventing serious disease from the omicron variant, noting that most of the mutations appear to be in similar regions as those in other variants.
“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," he told BBC radio.
Some experts said the variant’s emergence illustrated how rich countries’ hoarding of vaccines threatens to prolong the pandemic.
Fewer than 6% of people in Africa have been fully immunized against COVID-19, and millions of health workers and vulnerable populations have yet to receive a single dose. Those conditions can speed up spread of the virus, offering more opportunities for it to evolve into a dangerous variant.
“One of the key factors to emergence of variants may well be low vaccination rates in parts of the world, and the WHO warning that none of us is safe until all of us are safe and should be heeded," said Peter Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London.
South Africa has nearly 20 million doses of vaccines — made by Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson — but the numbers of people getting vaccines is about 120,000 per day, far below the government’s target of 300,000 per day.
Maria Cheng and Pan Pylas of the Associated Press contributed to this report.