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China's Sinovac ready to produce targeted Omicron vaccine 'if necessary'


Chinese vaccine manufacturer Sinovac – which has supplied the most Covid-19 vaccines globally – is confident it can rapidly mass produce a version against the Omicron variant if needed, but only after regulatory approvals are obtained, along with evidence that an updated vaccine is necessary.

“The technology and production is the same [with the ancestral virus] and a vaccine for research can be prepared very quickly after isolation of the strain. Production is not an issue,” the company said.

“But relevant studies need to be completed and new vaccines approved for use in accordance with regulatory requirements. It is too early to say whether a separate vaccine will need to be developed and produced for this variant.”

Sinovac said it was closely monitoring studies and collecting samples related to the Omicron variant through its global partner network to determine whether a new vaccine was required.

“If necessary, we will be able to rapidly advance the development and launch massive production of new vaccines to meet demand,” it said.

Sinovac previously developed inactivated vaccines against the Gamma and Delta variants, but did not alter its original vaccine design which it found to be effective against the earlier strains.

Scientists in South Africa were the first to detect the Omicron variant, with its large number of mutations on the spike protein. These affect how the virus enters human cells, and could also potentially affect most Covid-19 vaccines and treatments – which are based on the spike protein – sparking concerns the variant could be more contagious or resistant to current vaccines.

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The World Health Organisation moved quickly to classify the Omicron variant as “of concern”, meaning it is more contagious, more virulent or likely to evade public health measures, vaccines and therapeutics.

The agency said it was still too early to tell for sure how the mutations might impact current vaccines, treatment and tests and warned it could take weeks for scientists around the world to better understand the new variant.

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“WHO is working with technical partners to understand the potential impact of this variant on our existing countermeasures, including vaccines. Vaccines remain critical to reducing severe disease and death, including against the dominant circulating variant, Delta. Current vaccines remain effective against severe disease and death,” the agency said.

Other Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers around the world are also considering how to respond to Omicron, with Pfizer and BioNTech announcing they would know within two weeks where an adjustment might be required to its vaccine.

“Pfizer and BioNTech have taken actions months ago to be able to adapt the mRNA vaccine within six weeks and ship initial batches within 100 days in the event of an escape variant,” the company said.

Moderna said on Friday that it planned to test a booster for the variant if the current vaccine was found to be ineffective against Omicron. The company’s chief medical officer Paul Burton told the BBC that a reformulated vaccine against Omicron could be launched early next year.

AstraZeneca said it was already conducting research in Botswana and eSwatini, where the variant has been found, to test its impact on the vaccine.

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The Indian Council of Medical Research’s head of epidemiology and communicable diseases Dr Samiran Panda said that, while mRNA vaccines which target the coronavirus’ spike protein may need to be tweaked, the same was not true for vaccines being produced in India.

Covidshield – an Indian copy of the AstraZeneca vaccine – and Covaxin, an inactivated shot developed by India’s Bharat Biotech, produce immunity through a different antigen presentation, and would need time for laboratory-based observations and population-based studies to test, Panda told Indian news agency Asian News International.

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A string of countries have already acted to restrict their borders, despite the WHO’s warning against hastily imposed travel restrictions, saying they should look to a “risk-based and scientific approach”.

Britain announced the temporary suspension of flights from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and eSwatini on Thursday, followed by Israel, which on Saturday announced a two-week entry ban on all foreigners. Japan has issued a similar ban to Israel’s, to take effect from Tuesday.

Bahrain, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Singapore, Malaysia, Dubai, Oman and Jordan have also suspended flights from countries in southern Africa, while Germany has declared South Africa a “virus variant area”, which means it will only accept repatriated German citizens from the country.

The US is restricting travel from South Africa and seven other countries from Monday.

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa has condemned the travel bans enacted against his country and its neighbours as unfair discrimination and called for them to be urgently lifted.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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