‘Will my vaccine work against the new COVID-19 variant, Omicron , is the question that almost everyone is asking.
With the World Health Organisation in its latest update stating that the new variant poses a “very high” risk globally, countries are not only closing their doors to travellers from high risk countries, but also asking their citizens to get vaccinated.
However, the question that still needs to be answered is whether the strain that's considered to be highly infectious will evade vaccines.
We try to delve deeper on the issue and give you answers.
What we know of the Omicron variant so far?
As of now what scientists have found is that the variant may be more transmissible and better able to evade the body's immune responses.
Experts have said that as of now what they have studied is that in the Omicron variant the spike protein has more than 30 mutations. Ten of these mutations have been seen in what is called the receptor-binding domain or RBD of the spike protein. The RBD is that part of the spike protein which latches onto a human cell. A highly mutated RBD can carry the Omicron variant undetected by the body’s immunity.
Cardiff University’s immunologist Prof Paul Morgan speaking to The Guardian said that although the Omicron variant looks more infectious “a blunting rather than a complete loss [of immunity] is the most likely outcome”.
“The virus can’t possibly lose every single epitope (areas on the virus which antibodies and T cells can target) on its surface, because if it did that spike protein couldn’t work anymore. So, while some of the antibodies and T cell clones made against earlier versions of the virus, or against the vaccines may not be effective, there will be others, which will remain effective.”
So, will vaccines work against Omicron?
Scientists keep repeating this point and we have to pay attention: Vaccines are effective, but DO NOT offer 100 percent protection.
In the case of the new variant, this probably holds true too, though experts are still studying it.
Comparing it to the Delta variant could be helpful in understanding if vaccines are indeed effective against it. In the case of the Delta variant, COVID-19 patients were reported to have nine times less likely to die. Fully vaccinated people were also said to have three times lower chances of catching infection compared to those unvaccinated.
Hence, the real worry remains for those unvaccinated. They don’t have natural or vaccinated immunity against the Omicron variant.
India's top bio-medical scientist Dr Gagandeep Kang also explained how vaccinated individuals were relatively safer from the variant. She said that data showed individuals who contracted the infection and were later vaccinated, were either asymptomatic or had mild infection after contracting 'Omicron'.
Greater transmissibility doesn't necessarily mean greater severity, she added.
"Fortunately, in India, we have a small advantage because a lot of our people were infected before they were vaccinated. And we know that a combination of vaccination and infection gives you the broadest possible immune response. So, we may be lucky there," she was quoted as telling NDTV.
What do vaccine makers say?
Vaccine makers have already responded to the new variant. In the case of Pfizer, the US drug giant has said that they have already started working on a version of its COVID-19 vaccine specifically targeting the 'Omicron' variant.
Pfizer's CEO Albert Bourla said that they had begun testing the current vaccine against the 'Omicron' variant.
"I don't think the result will be the vaccines don't protect," Bourla said.
But the testing could show that existing shots "protect less," which means "that we need to create a new vaccine," Bourla said.
"Friday we made our first DNA template, which is the first possible inflexion of the development process of a new vaccine," he said.
German vaccine maker BioNTech also on Monday announced that it had started developing a new COVID-19 vaccine that aims to combat the Omicron variant.
The German company, which partners with Pfizer on COVID-19 vaccines, initiated "the development of an adapted vaccine" for Omicron to allow it to "move forward quickly."
Moderna in a statement on Sunday that it expects to have a new version of its shot available by early 2022, and that it should know whether its current vaccine has sufficient protection in the next two weeks.
Moderna’s Chief Medical Officer Paul Burton speaking to BBC’s 'Andrew Marr Show' said that if they had to “make a brand new vaccine I think that’s going to be early 2022 before that’s really going to be available in large quantities”.
Johnson & Johnson is also evaluating the effectiveness of its COVID-19 vaccine against Omicron, while also pursuing a vaccine specific to the variant.
"We have begun work to design and develop a new vaccine against Omicron and will rapidly progress it into clinical studies if needed," Mathai Mammen, global head of research for J&J's pharmaceuticals unit was quoted as saying to Business Today.
Similarly, Novavax Inc has also started working on a version of its COVID-19 vaccine to target the Omicron variant and would have the shot ready for testing and manufacturing in the next few weeks.
With inputs from agencies