Omicron COVID-19 variant a wake-up call for vaccine makers, experts warn – National – .

Here’s why the WHO skipped 2 Greek letters to name the new variant “Omicron” – National – .

The arrival of the highly mutated variant of Omicron is a red flag to develop vaccines less sensitive to rapid changes in the coronavirus, leading virologists and immunologists told Reuters.

Most first generation COVID-19 vaccines target the spike protein on the outer surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus used to infect human cells. Omicron has alarmed scientists because it has many more mutations than previous variants, including more than 30 on its peak.

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Omicron symptoms ‘totally different’ from the Delta COVID-19 variant: South African doctor

Research to determine the extent to which Omicron escapes immunity from existing vaccines or from a previous infection is ongoing. New data from the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine show some degree of reduced protection with the two-shot regimen.

Even if current vaccines remain effective for now, the dramatic evolution of the virus highlights the need for vaccines targeting the parts of the virus less prone to mutate.

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Covid-19 “will not go away”

“One thing that is clear from Omicron is that the virus … is not going to go away,” said Dr. Larry Corey, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle who oversees the COVID-19 vaccine trials supported by the US government. “There is a need for better vaccines. “

Since the start of the pandemic, the coronavirus has transformed on several occasions, including the Delta variant, which is more transmissible and dominant on a global scale. Yet COVID-19 vaccines have largely maintained their ability to protect people against serious illness and death.

As rapid response tools, current COVID-19 vaccines are “exceptional,” said Richard Hatchett, executive director of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), an international coalition formed to prepare for threats from infectious diseases which has invested in many COVID-19 vaccines.

Omicron COVID-19 variant may partially escape Pfizer vaccine protection, South African study finds

Omicron COVID-19 variant may partially escape Pfizer vaccine protection, South African study finds

But more work – and money – is needed to manage long-term risk. In March, CEPI requested $ 200 million in funding to develop vaccines with broad protection against variants of SARS-CoV-2 and other viruses in the same family such as MERS and SARS.

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“We have to keep investing as a hedge against a future we can’t predict,” Hatchett said.

World Health Organization chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan told Reuters Next on Friday that next-generation vaccines are needed.

“We are working hard to support this research and development,” Swaminathan said.

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COVID-19: Booster dose of Pfizer vaccine neutralizes Omicron variant, says BioNTech CEO

COVID-19: Booster dose of Pfizer vaccine neutralizes Omicron variant, says BioNTech CEO

Most of the major COVID-19 vaccines exclusively target parts of the spike protein that elicit strong immune responses, which is an early bet to block infection.

The most spectacular of these are the messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines, which were initially 95% effective against symptomatic COVID-19, far exceeding expectations. Their success has added billions in revenue and valuations to developers Pfizer and German partners BioNTech and Moderna.

An exception are the COVID-19 vaccines produced in China by Sinovac Biotech and state-owned Sinopharm, which use an inactivated version of the whole SARS-CoV-2 virus, instead of distinguishing specific genes. Early studies suggested that antibody protection in these vaccines wanes rapidly and that protection may be limited in the elderly.

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French biotech Valneva, whose vaccine uses an inactivated version of the entire SARS-CoV-2 virus, said in October that its shot had surpassed that of AstraZeneca, which targets the spike protein.

More recently, a British study showed that Valneva was the only vaccine in seven that did not offer any boost in immunity when given after two doses of the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine. Valneva’s vaccine is under review with the European Union’s medicines regulator.

For the immediate threat of Omicron, most companies are working on new versions of their existing vaccines targeting the variant. AstraZeneca said it will soon have initial trial data on a beta-variant vaccine, which shares similarities with Omicron.

Time for more widely protective vaccines?

Several research groups and companies have started working on more broadly protective vaccines, such as those that target parts of the virus too essential for its survival to change. Experts warn that it will likely take more than a year and generous funding to succeed.

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“It’s certainly a laudable effort,” said Dr Dan Barouch, a vaccine researcher at Harvard who helped design the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine. “This is not the answer for Omicron…, but it is potentially the answer for the next variant. “

Moderna is researching how to target the parts of the coronavirus that are least likely to mutate. Such a vaccine would require large-scale clinical trials that would take months, said company president Stephen Hoge.

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Early evidence suggests Omicron variant is more transmissible than Delta

Early evidence suggests Omicron variant is more transmissible than Delta

Moderna is working on an Omicron-specific version of its vaccine and is considering one that could treat up to four variants.

“In reality, I don’t think these second-generation vaccine approaches will materialize in the next six to 12 months,” Hoge said.

CEPI provides $ 4.3 million to MigVax Corp, a subsidiary of the Israeli research institute Migal Galilee, which is developing an oral vaccine, and up to $ 5 million to the University’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization from Saskatchewan. Both are in the early stages of development of potentially variant resistant vaccines.

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Omicron COVID-19 variant is spreading, but will it become more dominant than Delta?

CEPI is also investing up to $ 26 million to support work on a self-amplifying mRNA vaccine from Gritstone Bio to combat variants. Gritstone also enjoys support from the Gates Foundation and the US government, with preliminary trials underway or about to begin.

Gritstone CEO Andrew Allen said: “It’s just a little naive to think that the vaccines we made in the hot first few minutes of the pandemic are the best vaccines we can make. “

– Report by Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago; Additional reporting from Michael Erman in New Jersey, Carl O’Donnell in New York, Josephine Mason in London and Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt

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