The company that developed the Pfizer Covid-19 shot has said it could manufacture and distribute a new version of its jab within 100 days if the new omicron variant is found to make existing vaccines less effective.
BioNTech’s comment came as B.1.1.529, newly named after the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet, was declared a variant of concern by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which said it appeared to be highly transmissible.
Scientists also expressed worries about the possibility that omicron could threaten the efficacy of vaccines, given the concerningly high number of mutations on its spike protein, the part of the virus targeted by coronavirus inoculations.
Although more testing is needed to determine whether B.1.1.529 is an “escape variant” – a term for one which evades existing immunity – pharmaceutical companies have said they will be able to respond quickly if it is.
Like other firms, Pfizer and BioNTech have ploughed money into preparing for this eventuality.
“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 vaccine developer said in a statement.
The German company told Reuters that it will have enough data in a fortnight to say whether or not omicron is an “escape variant”. If it is, the jab would then be modified.
Stéphane Bancel, Moderna’s chief executive, spoke of how “it is imperative that we are proactive as the virus evolves”, before adding that his firm was executing its strategy against the new mutation.
Novavax said it has “already initiated development of a new recombinant spike protein based on the known genetic sequence of B.1.1.529 and will have it ready to begin testing and manufacturing within the next few weeks”.
Over in England, it is hoped that Oxford University and AstraZeneca’s new formula, reportedly close to completion and originally intended to fight the Beta variant, can, if necessary, be rejigged to improve efficacy against B.1.1.529.
Despite the alarm over the variant, England’s chief medical officer Prof Whitty said on Friday that the delta variant is “undoubtedly the principal thing we need to concern ourselves with between now and Christmas”.
However, like their colleagues in the US and Europe, British ministers decided to take no chances with the omicron variant, putting six countries in southern Africa, the epicentre of the B.1.1.529 outbreak, on its “red” travel list.
Although it is hoped that the policy will stem the spread of the variant, health experts have acknowledged it is only a matter of time before it reaches the UK, with confirmed cases already reported in Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong.