The new variant appears to be better than any other version of the virus previously encountered while bypassing vaccination protection. “Omicron is a much stronger escape variant,” says Şahin.
The good news is that people who received a booster dose of a third dose of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine were much better. In this case, the vaccine’s ability to block the coronavirus has been essentially restored.
The laboratory results will mean a rush for governments to offer booster doses. In the US, everyone over the age of 18 has been entitled to a booster vaccination since November 19, but vaccine supplies remain limited in other countries.
If Omicron becomes widespread, governments and companies will also need to decide whether to update messenger RNA vaccines like Pfizer’s to target the variant. Such vaccines work by introducing copies of the viral “spike” gene into a person’s cells, thereby creating an immune response.
Because Omicron’s spike is so different with more than 30 mutations, a new vaccine with its specific genetic code would work better against it.
BioNTech says it has already developed an Omicron vaccine and could switch its entire manufacturing process by March. “The only thing that changes is the blueprint of the new variant,” says Şahin. “We’ll start production and then decide whether to switch.”
So far, however, it is unclear whether a new vaccine is needed or what harm Omicron is capable of.
Even two doses of vaccine can prevent the variant from killing people. That’s because vaccines create immunity not only through antibodies, but also through long-lived memory cells, including T cells. For the most part, Omicron’s mutations do not fall within areas targeted by the T cells being studied by BioNTech.
Because of this, Şahin says, two doses of Pfizer can still prevent serious illness, although it will take a month or two to get the data safe.