As the highly contagious Omicron variant spreads rapidly throughout the world, vaccine manufacturers are scrambling to modify their initial COVID-19 vaccines or create new ones.
Now, pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and BioNTech have started a clinical trial to examine a new vaccine designed specifically to target the Omicron variant, according to a press statement released Tuesday. This is crucial news as, while people who have been vaccinated and given booster shots appear to be better protected against serious illness and hospitalization after being infected with Omicron, the variant still has resulted in breakthrough cases and a rise in overall infections.
"While current research and real-world data show that boosters continue to provide a high level of protection against severe disease and hospitalization with Omicron, we recognize the need to be prepared in the event this protection wanes over time and to potentially help address Omicron and new variants in the future," Kathrin U. Jansen, Pfizer's senior vice president and head of vaccine research and development, said in a statement. "Staying vigilant against the virus requires us to identify new approaches for people to maintain a high level of protection, and we believe developing and investigating variant-based vaccines, like this one, are essential in our efforts towards this goal."
Clinical trials for the Omicron-specific vaccine
The new vaccine will be tested for safety, tolerability, and the level of immunological response in up to 1,420 healthy adults aged 18 to 55, both as a primary series and a booster dose.
The participants will be put into three groups, with each group receiving one, two, or three doses of the vaccine. One group will include people who have already received two doses of the current Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and will also receive the Omicron vaccine. Another group will receive the omicron vaccine on top of three doses of the current Pfizer vaccine. Unvaccinated people, which will make up the third group, will receive three shots of the omicron vaccine.
The companies also stated that they want to do a similar research in the United States, testing the shot on people over the age of 55. In fact, a Pfizer spokesperson confirmed to CNN that the corporation has already started producing this vaccine.
"In the wake of Omicron, we are proactively investigating and manufacturing at risk an Omicron-based vaccine should it be needed, but we, of course, need to have results and discussions with health authorities as well as approvals before it would be deployed," the spokesperson told CNN.
Meanwhile, Moderna is also planning to begin trials of its own Omicron-specific shot, with Oxford University and AstraZeneca developing a new version of their vaccine. The vaccines we have at the moment are shown to protect people against the worst outcomes of COVID-19; however, as the virus continues to evolve, it looks like drugmakers may need to continue developing strain-specific vaccines with the introduction of new variants.