The World Health Organization officially sounded the alarm on Thursday about variant B.1.1.529 – now known as “Omicron” – which has a worrying array of mutations. But Moderna said his team had already been working “non-stop” on it for a few days, while researchers at BioNTech use a pseudovirus – designed to look like the new strain – in an attempt to find out if their vaccines will be less effective against the strain. within the next two weeks.
Johnson & Johnson said it is already testing its vaccine against the strain, while scientists at the University of Oxford expect imminent delivery of the virus, according to a person familiar with the matter. AstraZeneca said it was already conducting research in Botswana and Eswatini, where the variant is present, to assess how its vaccine has stood up to the new variant.
Vaccine makers relive a familiar rodeo. They performed the same lab tests that the Alpha, Beta, and Delta strains emerged. They were waiting for new variants and prepared by conducting clinical trials to test new versions. AstraZeneca is expected to deliver results soon on its first modified vaccine, for the beta variant, and Pfizer and BioNTech are conducting modified vaccine trials for the Alpha and Delta variants.
But this is the first time that a variant has shown so many mutations in a key location: the “peak” protein it uses to infect human cells. François Balloux, a professor at the UCL Genetics Institute, said the changes meant that neutralizing antibodies that protected people who were vaccinated or previously infected were less likely to recognize this variant.
Jo Walton, analyst at Credit Suisse, said all currently approved vaccines are focused on the spike protein, so they may all prove to be slightly less protective.
But mRNA vaccines should be easier to adapt because they simply deliver genetic codes into tiny bubbles of fat and then use the body as a factory to make the protein that the immune system must recognize. These codes can be quickly exchanged and there is no need for the extremely time-consuming process of growing cells in reservoirs which is required for other types of vaccines.
“MRNA should be the simplest: you can get a new cassette and put it in and so if you need it you should be able to produce a new vaccine,” Walton said.
Shares of mRNA vaccine makers surged on Friday: Moderna rose 21%, BioNTech gained 17% and Pfizer rose 7%. CureVac rose 12.5% even though it has yet to approve a vaccine. The German company said it could test its vaccine candidate with its partner GSK within a few weeks.
BioNTech said so and Pfizer had taken steps “months ago” to adapt the mRNA vaccine they developed together within six weeks and to ship the initial batches within 100 days, in case there is. would have an “escape variant”.
Pfizer recently said it has reduced the time between starting the process and putting vaccines into vials from 110 days to 31 days.
While adenovirus vector vaccines such as the Oxford / AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are also fairly easy to scale, they are much more difficult to scale up. Michael Leuchten, an analyst at UBS, said this showed in the difficulties AstraZeneca had had with production earlier this year.
“Adenovirus vectors don’t like to grow. They take personal offense at this, ”he said.
A vaccine that could benefit is currently under review by regulators. Valneva’s complete inactivated vaccine teaches the immune system how to recognize other key proteins as well as the peak. Shares of the French vaccine maker rose 8.5% on Friday in hopes it would be better able to tackle a problematic variant.
The EU recently agreed to buy up to 60 million doses of Valneva, but the UK, which had helped fund the expansion of the Scottish Valneva plant, canceled its deal with the company in September .
If the world needs a vaccine suitable for this new variant, or another future strain, governments, regulators and the WHO will need to decide when to make the switch.
Clive Dix, former acting head of the UK government’s vaccine task force, said it would be important to closely monitor the severity of the disease for those vaccinated.
“Unfortunately, the data will not be generated in the lab, it will be real world data in people,” he said. “If, when they analyze people who have been vaccinated in South Africa, where it swirls, they find out that they are getting very sick, that’s the wake-up call to start making a vaccine – and that would be soon. “
Richard Hatchett, chief executive of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, said the new variant highlights the need for more research and development on the Covid vaccine. “It is of course essential that we continue to immunize people around the world. . . but we also need to focus our efforts and resources on improving the current Covid-19 vaccines to make them more effective against several variants, ”he said.
If vaccines become less effective, drugs to treat Covid become even more important.
Rafael Bayarri Olmos, an immunologist and researcher at the Molecular Medicine Laboratory at Copenhagen University Hospital, said the variant was most likely to threaten the effectiveness of antibody treatments.
Immune protection from vaccines might work against all of the spike protein, but antibody treatments have focused entirely on the receptor-binding domain where the virus has bound to cells, he said. The B.1.1.529 strain has 15 mutations in this domain.
“The variant could harm the effectiveness of the vaccines but not completely undermine it,” Olmos said. But it could make some antibody treatments “completely non-functional”.
Early analyzes from the Bloom Lab at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute in Seattle predicted that the antibody treatments of AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline would be more likely to attack the new strain than the previous generation of Regeneron and Eli Lilly.
AstraZeneca said he was testing his treatment but hoped it would still work because it included two antibodies that work in different ways.
Sajid Javid, Britain’s Health Secretary, said on Friday that the new variant could impact the effectiveness of “one of the main treatments”: Ronapreve, made by Regeneron.
New York-based biotechnology said it was testing its current antibodies and next-generation candidates, a combination of which is already in clinical trials.
The “good news” was that the antivirals used to treat Covid worked differently from vaccines, so they were less likely to be affected by spike protein mutations, Walton said.
Kin-Chow Chang, a professor at the University of Nottingham who studies antivirals against respiratory viruses, said the new variant highlights the need for this type of treatment. He was working one as a “second line of defense.”
Pfizer and Merck recently reported positive late stage trial results for their antivirals and the latter has received approval in the UK. Merck downgraded its efficacy data on Friday in an analysis of comprehensive results, showing that its treatment reduced the risk of hospitalization and death by 30%, not 50%.
But drug companies haven’t ramped up antiviral production to the level that might be required if the new variant really takes off. Merck expects to have journeys of 10 million by the end of the year, with Pfizer only expected to offer 180,000. to prepare.
“It’s a good insurance policy, but I don’t think it will be on a close enough scale,” said Leuchten of UBS.
Chang said the drugmakers were probably “pretty calm” about the capabilities of their antivirals against newer variants – but would still be eager to test.
“The first one to have data to show that it works against the latest variant will gain a lot of recognition in the market,” he said.
Additional reporting by Oliver Barnes in London