The new COVID-19 variant named Omicron has officially gone global with reports of its detection arriving from Belgium, Canada, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, the UK, and South Africa, where it was first detected. Its many mutations have got experts worried about how immunity to old strains will fare against the new variant. Among them: Stéphane Bancel, chief executive of Moderna, who this week shared concerns that the existing vaccines might not be up to the task when it comes to combating Omicron.
“There is no world, I think, where [the effectiveness] is the same level... we had with [the] Delta [variant],” Bancel told the Financial Times. “I think it’s going to be a material drop. I just don’t know how much because we need to wait for the data. But all the scientists I’ve talked to... are like, ‘This is not going to be good’.”
Bancel’s fears center around the fact that of Omicron’s many mutations, a large number exist on the spike protein: the part of the virus which takes a hold of human cells. There are around 50 mutations recognized in Omicron so far, 32 of which center around the spike protein, demonstrating that this variant is a different beast indeed.
In light of Omicron’s spread, the CDC has changed its stance on booster shots. Having previously pushed for the over 50s to be prioritized for a third jab, they’re now asking all adults over 18 to seek out a COVID-19 booster. Those who received Johnson & Johnson should wait until two months after their last vaccine, while people who received Pfizer or Moderna jabs should wait six months.
However, Bancel predicts that those vaccines won’t be as well-suited to fighting the Omicron variant as they were for Delta and other earlier strains. To overcome this, he says that a fresh glut of vaccines would need to be formulated to deal with the new COVID kid on the block, but this could take months to manufacture and release.
The spike protein, which acts like the virus’s key to human cells, is also the key to Bancel’s concerns, as it wasn’t thought a strain touting this many mutations would appear so early on in the pandemic. Many have expressed disappointment that vaccine inequality meant that SARS-CoV-2 was left to run rampant in parts of the world, as it’s this kind of uncontrolled spread that invites troublesome variants to the pandemic party.
However, Bancel said that rich countries were more responsible for the vaccine hoarding than the companies that made them.
“This was mostly a policy decision by the rich countries,” he explained. “In the US, we were told we had no choice but to give 60 percent of our output to the US government. That was not a Moderna decision, that was a US government decision.”
According to Bancel, the next fortnight will be instrumental in establishing both how deadly the Omicron variant is and if the existing vaccines are up to the fight.
[H/T: Business Insider]