Will vaccines need adjusting to fight omicron?
Cape Town, Dec 04: Since South African scientists discovered a COVID-19 variant later named omicron, researchers around the world have been trying to get a handle on the type of threat it poses.
The severity of infections is one of scientists' and health officials' key concerns. Early indications suggest omicron is highly transmissible, while its mortality rate is not yet known.
Another issue scientists are grappling with, is whether vaccines will need to be adjusted in response to the new threat.
South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla said only a small number of vaccinated people have been infected by the omicron variant, mostly with mild cases. He added that the vast majority of those who have been hospitalized were not vaccinated.
WHO: Too soon to say if vaccines need adjusting
The World Health Organization (WHO) said not enough is known about omicron to determine if vaccines need to be recalibrated. WHO Emergencies Director Mike Ryan said there was not enough evidence to suggest currently available vaccines would need adjusting to protect against the new variant.
"Right now, we have highly effective vaccines that are working," he said. "We need to focus on getting them more equitably distributed. We need to focus on getting people most at risk vaccinated."
The global health body's chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan, cautioned against panicand said it was not yet possible to ascertain whether omicron would become the new dominant strain.
"We need to be prepared and cautious, not panic, because we're in a different situation to a year ago," Swaminathan told Reuters news agency.
A spokesperson called it "commendable" that vaccine manufacturers were checking their jabs for efficacy against omicron.
"It is very commendable that vaccine manufacturers already start planning ahead and plan for the likelihood for having to adjust the existing vaccine," Christian Lindmeier said. "That's good not just to wait until the final alarm bell rings."
BioNTech says adaptations can happen quickly
The CEO of German biotechnology company BioNTech said the company should be able to make adjustments to its vaccine relatively quickly.
Ugur Sahin said the existing vaccine, developed in partnership with Pfizer, would have a high likelihood of providing protection against severe infection, but said at some point in future there could be a new vaccine.
"I believe in principle at a certain timepoint we will need a new vaccine against this new variant. The question is how urgent it needs to be available," Sahin said.
The biotech company's CEO said that that a relaunch of its shot could be achieved within 100 days, but said people should continue looking for its current offering.