New COVID variant? Potential for a new vaccine on the rise

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Drugmakers are racing to develop new vaccines intended to target the omicron variant. This coronavirus strain has mutations that suggest it could evade immunity provided by vaccination or natural infection. 


Facts

Moderna Chief Medical Officer Dr. Paul Burton said in an interview on NBC Now’s “Hallie Jackson Now” on Monday that the company has already started work on a version of its vaccine to address the new variant. Pfizer and BioNTech said they could develop an omicron-specific vaccine within six weeks and ship initial batches within 100 days if needed. 

Johnson & Johnson (J&J) also said it is pursuing a modified vaccine and will progress it as needed.

Shots previously in development and clinical trials for other variants, including beta and delta, were later found to be unnecessary as the existing vaccines provided to be highly effective or the strain in question “fizzled out,” said John Moore, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the Weill Cornell Medical College.

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Moore stated, “That’s the key unknown for omicron. Is omicron going to be like beta and not outcompete delta and fade away, or is it going to be a super version of delta and something that we need to be concerned about it?”

Details

In a speech Monday morning, Biden said his administration is looking into the mutation. “The new variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” he said. 

The U.S. government is already working with Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson to develop a plan for creating vaccines and boosters tailored for new variants as they emerge. 

Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) said that preliminary evidence suggested “an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, compared to others” variants of concern. The new strain also has mutations that are associated with higher transmissibility and potentially reduced antibody protection, it said.

All areas lead to the potential to force a new vaccine strain on the general population.

Dr. Michel Nussenzweig, an immunologist at Rockefeller University in New York, said if health officials see a significant increase in the number of vaccinated people hospitalized with COVID, there would be “good reason” to launce a variant-specific vaccine.

Following up his email by saying, “If there is a worst-case scenario, you would expect to see more infections in vaccinated people, but you wouldn’t expect to see a massive increase in deaths because there would still be some protective immunity.”

A Pfizer spokesperson said the company is “constantly conducting surveillance efforts focused on monitoring for emerging variants that potentially escape protection from our vaccine.” 

The spokesperson said Pfizer could develop and produce a tailor-made vaccine against that variant in approximately 100 days.

Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel stated that they are looking to have a high 100-microgram dose of its booster shot in the near future. “The higher dose could be done right away, but it will be months before the omicron-specific variant is ready to ship in massive quantities.”

The self-proclaimed “science” himself, Fauci told ABC program “This Week” that it’s too early to say whether new mandates or lockdowns will be necessary to fight the variant. However, Bancel warned that the symptoms reported in South Africa might not be a good predictor of the variant’s virulence since less than 5% of the population is over 60 and has far fewer comorbidities than the U.S. and Europe, which tend to have older and sicker citizens.

Only time will tell the potential increase in cases and how the government will force people to live. 

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