With the new omicron strain fueling fear around the globe that the coronavirus is regaining momentum, makers of the world’s most successful vaccines are investigating whether they need to tweak their shots.
Over the last few days, Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca revealed plans to address the threat posed by omicron, which emerged in South Africa and recently was detected in Australia, Israel, Hong Kong and parts of Europe. On Friday, the World Health Organization classified omicron as a “variant of concern.”
Each of the companies said it's testing an omicron-specific vaccine. Moderna said it could have a tweaked version of its shot ready early next year if necessary. In the case of the delta and beta variants, Moderna needed “60-90 days” to advance new candidates to clinical testing, it said in a release.
“We should know about the ability of the current vaccine to provide protection in the next couple of weeks,” Moderna’s chief medical officer Paul Burton told the BBC. “The remarkable thing about the mRNA vaccines," Burton said, "is that we can move very fast.”
Moderna provided the most detailed information—laying out a three-pronged strategy—on its plan to address the variant.
First, with 306 participants, the biotech has begun a study of a higher-dose version of its booster to see if it provides superior protection against the strain. Secondly, Moderna is studying two multi-valent booster candidates that were designed in anticipation of mutations such as those that have appeared in the omicron variant. Lastly, the company is developing its omicron-specific shot.
Moderna’s strategy is the “right one,” said (PDF) analysts at ODDO BHF, who stopped short of adjusting revenue figures for the company for 2022 and 2023.
“In less than three months we could hope, on paper, to have a specific vaccine candidate against this new form and a market launch between three and six months from now,” ODDO BHF analysts wrote to investors.
Meanwhile, Comirnaty partners Pfizer and BioNTech will be ready to adapt a new vaccine "within six weeks and ship initial batches within 100 days," BioNTech said in an emailed statement.
The company added that there is a greater chance that solving the new strain will require a tweaked shot.
"The omicron variant differs from previously observed variants because it has additional mutations located in the spike protein," BNT said. "We expect data from the laboratory tests in about two weeks. These data will provide more information about whether B.1.1.529 could be an escape variant that may require an adjustment of our vaccine."
For its part, J&J has been working with academic groups in South Africa and from around the world to evaluate the effectiveness of its adenovirus vaccine versus the omicron variant, the company said in a release.
“We remain confident in the robust humoral and cell-mediated immune responses elicited by the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, demonstrated by the durability and breadth of protection against variants to date,” Mathai Mammen, the global head of Janssen R&D, said in a statement. “In parallel, we have begun to work to design and develop a new vaccine against omicron and will rapidly progress it into clinical studies if needed.”
AstraZeneca is taking the same measures—testing its current vaccine while developing another to defend against the variant. Additionally, it is testing the effectiveness of the monoclonal antibody treatment it is developing for the prevention and treatment COVID-19.
"AstraZeneca has developed, in close collaboration with Oxford University, a vaccine platform that enables us to respond quickly to new variants that may emerge," the company said in an emailed statement. "AstraZeneca is also already conducting research in locations where the variant has been identified, namely in Botswana and Eswatini, that will enable us to collect real world data of Vaxzevria against this new virus variant."
In a note to investors, Berenberg analysts said that the speed with which mRNA vaccines can be developed will be critical if new variant-specific shots are needed.
“Due to more mutations observed in omicron, the effectiveness of the current vaccination regimen will likely be reduced, which underscores the need for boosters and potentially variant-specific vaccines,” the analysts wrote. “We believe mRNA technology is the solution to lead us out of the pandemic.”