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As European countries work to contain the spread of a new variant of the coronavirus, named Omicron, attention is turning to whether existing vaccines will work against it – and whether further jabs will be needed.
One of the reasons scientists in South Africa sounded the alarm about the variant first identified there was due to the large number of mutations in the part of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. that most vaccines target.
While investigations are underway as to whether vaccines remain effective, governments and public health agencies are urging citizens to maximize their protection by receiving boosters, if they are eligible, and especially for those who have failed. not yet manifested to receive a first course.
To stop the potential spread of any new variant, “it is imperative to close the vaccination gap,” Andrea Ammon, director of the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), said in a statement, adding that this included the provision of booster vaccines. for all adults and favoring the over 40s.
Meanwhile, vaccine makers are preparing to custom manufacture new jabs against the Omicron variant, if necessary, based on their existing technologies that have been shown to be effective against the original strain. virus.
Are vaccines protective?
The extent to which existing vaccines protect against Omicron is under investigation, but, according to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, there are early signs that they may not be effective in preventing transmission.
“It appears that Omicron is spreading very quickly and can spread between people who have been doubly vaccinated,” he said on Saturday.
Scientists say that in theory, the Omicron might escape the protection offered by vaccines better than the other variants.
This is because vaccines used in Europe induce a multitude of antibodies to attack sites on a part of the virus known as the spike protein, explained Wendy Barclay, a respiratory virus expert at Imperial College. London.
While other variants like Alpha and Delta also show mutations at these so-called antigenic sites of the protein, the other sites of the spike protein have not changed and the vaccines have therefore remained effective.
“What’s a little different about this variant is that it has so many changes across the peak that almost all of the antigenic sites we know of are changed on this virus,” Barclay told reporters at the event. ‘a briefing.
This suggests that the antibodies induced by the vaccines “will be compromised in their ability to neutralize the virus,” she said, while stressing that more research was needed to prove this theory.
Meanwhile, the first indications from South Africa offer a glimmer of hope.
At a press conference on Monday, Waasila Jassat, a public health specialist at the South African National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD), said there had been a sharp increase in hospital admissions in the northern region of Guateng province, according to tweets of SA Government News.
However, most hospital admissions are to unvaccinated people, Jassat said, adding that the highest risk of hospital admissions is in older groups with underlying health conditions.
Michelle Groome, head of the division of public health surveillance and response at NICD, said cases were highest among young people, the hardest-hit 10 to 24-year-olds, while there were also cases in 25 to 29 year olds.
“What we’re seeing clinically in South Africa… is extremely mild,” Angelique Coetzee, president of the South African Medical Association, told Andrew Marr on Sunday.
Symptoms may have been missed earlier in South Africa and Europe, she said, as they differ slightly from Delta: extreme fatigue, body aches, headaches, and a sore throat. “No cough and no loss of smell or taste,” she said.
In South Africa, around 35% of the population has been vaccinated, and 2.9 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported so far in the country of nearly 60 million, although the actual number may be much more raised.
Biotechnology is mobilized
Although evidence is being generated on the efficacy of the vaccine against Omicron, vaccine makers reacted quickly.
John Bell, regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford, who has co-developed an adenovirus vaccine with AstraZeneca, said the company has already developed a vaccine that targets the beta strain of coronavirus, which has also was first identified in South Africa and known as B.1.351. .
This strain dodged much of the protection offered by the original Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine – as South Africa canceled its vaccination campaign with the vaccine, switching to vaccines from Johnson & Johnson and BioNTech / Pfizer.
Bell told Times Radio that Beta “is the closest strain” to the one now spreading rapidly in South Africa, “so it will be interesting to see how that plays out” against Omicron. Scientists have been working on it for six months and will complete their immunogenicity studies – needed by regulators to assess whether to approve it – next week.
If Oxford and AstraZeneca are to start from scratch to develop a new vaccine against Omicron, “it will probably take a little longer than mRNA vaccines,” he said, estimating that it would take four to six months.
Germany’s BioNTech and its U.S. partner Pfizer have been working for months on a process to quickly manufacture a new COVID-19 vaccine variant and increase production if needed, BioNTech said in a statement.
The companies could “adapt the mRNA vaccine within six weeks and ship the initial batches within 100 days if a variant escapes,” BioNTech said. They have already developed vaccines against the Alpha and Delta variants and have started clinical trials with these jabs to collect safety and tolerability data that can be provided to regulators.
Moderna, whose vaccine uses mRNA technology similar to that of the BioNTech / Pfizer vaccine, said it was studying several strategies to protect against Omicron.
The US biotech is testing whether people receiving a higher dose of its booster – the same dose as the main course – have better protection against Omicron, by analyzing laboratory samples.
He also has two new booster vaccines in development. The first targets beta variants and the second targets beta and delta variants. Full and a half doses of both are in clinical trials, and the company is “rapidly” expanding testing of blood samples to analyze antibody response to Omicron.
In addition, an Omicron-specific booster is in development that could be ready for clinical testing in 60 to 90 days, the company said.
Meanwhile, Novavax, whose protein-based vaccine has not yet been approved for use, has also started development of a new recombinant spike protein vaccine based on the known genetic sequence of B.1.1. 529. It will be ready to begin testing and manufacturing “within the next few weeks,” the company said in a statement.
Additionally, Novavax said trials have shown that its whole spike protein vaccine may offer protection against new variants when used as a booster, as was shown against Alpha, Delta and Beta in a study by phase 2. However, it has not yet submitted an application for approval as a booster.
A decision is expected “within a few weeks” in the EU and also soon in the United Kingdom on its vaccine, which is currently authorized in Indonesia.
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