Old COVID-19 Vaccines Will Protect Against Omicron, Say Oxford and BioNTech

And we're weeks away from confirming the truth.
Ameya Paleja
A COVID-19 vaccine.scaliger/iStock

In what might come as a relief to many, BioNTech said that their existing vaccines are likely to offer protection in severe cases, even from the Omicron variant, Reuters reported. The University of Oxford is also confident that its vaccine will continue to protect against the new variant, Bloomberg reported.

Last week, the world woke up to a new variant of coronavirus that was first detected in Botswana but seen majority in South Africa. The World Health Organization has designated this variant that carries a 'Frankenstein mix' of mutations as Omicron. Scientists have been worried that the changes to the spike protein of this variant may enable it to escape the immunity conferred by vaccines, a sentiment echoed by Moderna CEO in an interview with Financial Times.

Speaking to Reuters, BioNTech's co-founder and CEO, Ugur Sahin said that he wasn't "particularly worried" about the new variant. Even if antibodies failed to trap the new variant, Sahin expected T-cells, another line of immune defense, to recognize parts of the spike protein that hadn't changed and prevent viral replication and severe disease. Reuters also stressed that by severe disease, Sahin meant requiring hospitalization and intensive care. 

The report adds Sahin's statement that he does expect some loss in vaccine protection against mild or moderate disease but could not predict the extent of the loss. Sahin also said that a third booster dose would offer better protection when compared to the two-dose course.

The University of Oxford also said in a statement that vaccines were likely to protect against the Omicron variant in the same way they had protected against previous variants, Bloomberg reported. 

Pfizer and AstraZeneca, the commercial partners involved in manufacturing vaccines have already begun testing their existing shots against the new variant in regions such as Botswana where the variant has emerged, Bloomberg reported. While the data is expected to arrive in the next two to three weeks, the companies have also begun the process to develop an Omicron-specific vaccine. 

Sahin said that his company has been performing trials of variant-specific vaccines, even though they weren't commercially launched. The process, however, has ensured that the company is working with regulators throughout and can relaunch a variant-specific vaccine in about 100 days, subject to regulatory approvals, Reuters reported. 

Europe's drug regulator has told the European Parliament that it is still not sure if variant-specific vaccines need to be introduced on this occasion. However, if required, the agency could authorize a new vaccine in three-four months, Bloomberg reported. 

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