A lab technician wearing a full body suit handles a bottle of growth media for virus production during coronavirus vaccine research in the Valneva SA laboratories in Vienna, Austria.
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LONDON – As the new variant of Omicron-Covid spreads around the world, hopes are being raised in the ability of vaccine manufacturers to develop effective vaccines against the strain.
Global market sentiment collapsed Tuesday morning amid fears that the Covid-19 vaccine currently in use may be less effective against the new Omicron variant. The strain was first identified in South Africa and classified as a “worrying variant” by the World Health Organization on Friday.
The sharp reversal for European and US stock futures came after Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel told the Financial Times that he expected existing vaccines to be less effective against the new variant.
Bancel told CNBC on Monday that it could take months to develop and ship a vaccine specifically targeting the Omicron variant. He added that it would take at least two weeks to see how much the mutations had affected the effectiveness of the vaccines currently on the market.
The Omicron variant has more than 30 mutations on the spike protein, which binds to human cells. According to the WHO, some of the mutations are associated with higher transmission and reduced antibody protection.
However, the UN health authority confirmed on Monday that there are still considerable uncertainties and unknowns with this variant.
First, experts don’t yet know how transmissible the variant is, and whether an increase in infections is due to its ability to evade previous immunity or because it is more transmissible.
Second, when it comes to the omicron, there is uncertainty about how well vaccines protect against infection, transmission, disease severity, and death. Third, it is not known whether the variant causes more symptoms.
The WHO has announced that it will take weeks to understand how the variant can affect diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.
The world is now facing a fearful waiting game as experts try to find out what challenges and risks the Omicron variant brings with it.
Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, said the effects of omicron on its own two-dose vaccine, developed with German biotech company BioNTech and widely used in the US and Europe, remain to be seen.
“I don’t think the result will be that the vaccines won’t protect,” Bourla told CNBC on Monday, adding, “I think the result might be what we don’t know about, the vaccines are less protective.”
Bourla said Pfizer has already started manufacturing a new vaccine if needed. The company created its first DNA template on Friday, he said, the first step in the development process of a new vaccine.
“We have made it clear several times that we will have the vaccine in less than 100 days,” said Bourla. He found that the company was able to quickly develop vaccines for the beta and delta variants, but they ultimately weren’t used because the original vaccinations remained effective.
Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca, which have also made widely available and effective Covid-19 vaccines (although the AstraZeneca syringe is not yet approved in the US), have announced that they will be investigating and testing the new variant.
Rafael Bayarri Olmos, a researcher at Copenhagen University Hospital, told CNBC Tuesday that variants “take a toll on” how well Covid vaccines can prevent infection.
“Now we have Omicron with 32 mutations in the spike protein, some of which have been seen before and are worrying – they can make the virus more transmissible, they can make them better at avoiding immune recognition or bypassing your defenses – so we expect the vaccines won’t be as effective, but that doesn’t mean they won’t work, “he added.
“They are now one of our best tools to contain the spread of this virus.”
Omicron has now been found in more than a dozen countries, leading many to impose travel restrictions and implement stricter Covid measures, such as wearing masks and recommending working from home.
The reason is that many countries are already struggling with high daily infections due to the globally dominant delta variant.
Covid symptoms associated with the Omicron variant were described as “extremely mild” by the South African doctor who first discovered the new strain. Nevertheless, the World Health Organization warned on Monday that the Omicron variant is likely to continue to spread and pose a “very high” global risk.
Francois Balloux, director of the UCL Genetics Institute at University College London, emphasized that very little is known about how contagious and deadly the variant is compared to the Delta variant.
“What we can foresee, and what we’re fairly confident of, is that this variant is more likely to infect and re-infect people who have been vaccinated or are immune to previous infection,” he told CNBC’s Squawk Box Europe on Tuesday.
“But in terms of intrinsic transmissibility, regardless of the immune system, and its virulence, we know, I would say, next to nothing at this point … We just have to wait before we can say anything.”
There is silent optimism that Omicron could be a more contagious but less virulent version of the virus, meaning it could develop into an infection more like a cold.
Deakin University epidemiologist Catherine Bennett told the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday, “There is a chance we are seeing a more contagious and less virulent version of the virus, which would be one of those steps on a happier path to living with the virus.” “She said.” We have so many signals that it could be [be] OK, as we have signals that it might be a little worrying. “
Many countries are not taking any risks and have announced an expansion of Covid vaccinations, booster vaccinations and more restrictive measures.
On Monday, US President Joe Biden ruled out further lockdowns and travel restrictions for the time being, although he and a number of countries have temporarily suspended travel from a number of southern African countries.
– CNBC’s Spencer Kimball contributed to coverage of this story.