New Covid variant Omicron: Will vaccines work against new strain? What Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna said

The UK government confirmed on Saturday 27 November that two cases have been detected in England

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 Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed all over 18s should have be invited for their booster shot before the end of January, in a race against time to stop the new variant spreading.

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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 10 countries; South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia to limit its spread.

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.

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.

In addition to comment from the firms who produce the vaccine, WHO has also advised that there is no current evidence to suggest lesser vaccine efficacy when fighting off the new variant.

An official at the World Health Organisation (WHO) told Reuters news agency added some mutations of the virus indicate an increased risk of quicker transmission.

They said more than 40 different mutations have been identified with the Omicron variant, leading countries such as the UK to offer reduced time periods between second doses and boosters, as well as offering boosters to all over-18s before the end of January.

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”.

Chief executive of BioNTech Ugur Sahin said: "To my mind there's no reason to be particularly worried. The only thing that worries me at the moment is the fact that there are people that have not been vaccinated at all."

This was reiterated by Albert Bourla, chief executive of Pfizer, he said he is "very confident" the jab works against all known mutations of coronavirus, including Omicron.

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.

On Sunday 28 November, 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.”

Moderna CEO Stephane Sahin said: "We think it's likely that people will have substantial protection against severe disease caused by Omicron."

But, he did raise concerns that the new variant is "highly infectious" and it is "highly possible" the effectiveness of vaccines is decreasing, therefore boosters may offer a "double" dose of protection.

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, and the offer of a third dose has now been extended to anyone over the age of 18.

Vaccine inequity continues to be one of the most concerning factors in achieving an international response to the pandemic, with lowest to middle-income families having the lowest rates of vaccination.

Boris Johnson urged everyone eligible for their vaccine to take the jab, “We’re going to be throwing everything at it, to ensure everyone eligible is offered a booster in just over two months,” the prime minister said.

He added that the government’s aim was for the pace of the rollout to match that seen for earlier courses of the vaccine. “There will be temporary vaccine centres popping up like Christmas trees,” as the government announced a target time frame of two months for all adults to have been offered their third dose.

As before, age groups will be invited one at a time, eldest to youngest, to receive their booster.

“We’ll move down the cohorts rapidly,” Johnson added.