Pfizer’s CEO has said a COVID-19 vaccine for the Omicron variant will reportedly be ready in March and the company has already started manufacturing doses. However, he added that it’s still uncertain whether there is a need for a fourth dose of the vaccine.
“This vaccine will be ready in March,” Albert Bourla, chairman and chief executive officer of Pfizer told CNBC on Monday. “We [are] already starting manufacturing some of these quantities at risk.”
Data from UK scientists has suggested that the super-infectious Omicron variant largely evades immunity from previous infection or two vaccine doses. However, receiving a “booster” shot can significantly increase immunity, with a third dose raising effectiveness estimates against symptomatic Omicron infections to up to 80 percent.
Bourla suggested that the vaccine will be fine-tuned to make it more effective at battling newer variants of SARS-CoV-2, a bit like how the influenza (flu) vaccine is reformulated each year to suit whichever strain is in circulation. However, he added that it’s currently unclear whether an Omicron vaccine is needed or how it would be used. He also indicates that it’s currently inconclusive whether a fourth dose would be worthwhile at all, but further data might change that stance.
"The hope is that we will achieve something that will have way, way better protection particularly against infections, because the protection against the hospitalizations and the severe disease — it is reasonable right now, with the current vaccines as long as you are having, let’s say, the third dose," Bourla explained.
"I don't know if there is a need for a fourth booster, that is something that needs to be tested."
There are still many people across the world who are yet to be fully vaccinated due to a lack of access. A vaccine specifically targeting the dominant variant could, therefore, be especially useful for countries with currently low vaccine coverage.
Although it's good to be prepared, it’s not clear that there is a demand for such a vaccine yet, especially in countries with solid vaccine coverage. In December 2021, Dr Anthony Fauci told STAT that he was not convinced an Omicron-specific vaccine was necessary because it’s hoped the current booster shots will provide sufficient protection. UK government advisers are also currently recommending against a fourth COVID-19 vaccine dose.
On the other hand, the CEO of Moderna, Stéphane Bancel, recently said that the company is working on an Omicron-targeting booster and believes that people will require boosters in the fall of 2022 after antibodies from the vaccine wanes.