Pfizer, BioNTech say omicron partially evades its COVID vaccine but booster can restore protection

BioNTech's headquarters
In justifying booster use, Ozlem Tureci, BioNTech’s chief medical officer, said: “Three doses of our vaccine neutralize the omicron variant whereas two doses show significantly reduced neutralization of this new variant." (BioNTech)

The COVID-19 vaccine produced by Pfizer and BioNTech, Comirnaty, provides less protection against the omicron variant than it did against wild-type COVID and other variants, the companies said on Wednesday.

They also reported that a third (booster) shot is needed to gain protection against omicron comparable to that provided by the two-dose series against wild-type COVID-19 and other variants.

The announcement from the companies came hours after the release of a study by scientists in South Africa that showed the omicron variant could largely evade the antibodies generated by the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

The lab study also indicated that booster shots would help restore some level of protection and that the original two-dose series was still likely to prevent a severe form of the disease.

Pfizer-BioNTech's latest results are also from a lab study. Serum was analyzed from vaccine recipients three weeks after their second dose and other recipients a month after their booster shot.

Sera from those who received two doses showed an average of more than a 25-fold reduction in neutralization titers against omicron compared to wild-type. A third dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine showed a 25-fold increase in antibody titers.

“Three doses of our vaccine neutralize the omicron variant whereas two doses show significantly reduced neutralization of this new variant,” Ozlem Tureci, BioNTech’s chief medical officer, said in a virtual press conference on Wednesday.

While two doses of the mRNA vaccine may not be sufficient to protect against infection from omicron, the companies believe that vaccinated individuals will remain protected against severe forms of the disease as the vast majority of epitopes targeted by vaccine-induced T cells are not affected by omicron’s mutations.

“Eighty percent of the T-cell epitopes that are induced by the current vaccine are still present in the omicron variant, and since every individual has usually multiple CD8 T-cell epitopes being recognized, we assume there will be a robust T-cell response against the omicron variant,” BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin said.  

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The companies' results are preliminary and much more will be known in “six to eight weeks,” Sahin said, as “real-world data can mature.”

BioNTech is developing an omicron-specific vaccine, which if needed, can be made available commercially by March, pending regulatory approvals. The company's chief operating officer Sierk Poetting said that once the plasmid starting material is tweaked, the mRNA vaccine production process would remain the same for manufacturing an omicron-specific shot.

Analysts at Cantor Fitzgerald say that Pfizer and BioNTech still should be able to produce 4 billion vaccine doses, regardless of whether they need to shift production to an omicron-specific shot.

The analysts also believe that the durability of Pfizer’s vaccine sales “remain underappreciated” on Wall Street, while pointing out that Pfizer is creating a “best-in-class” COVID-19 franchise with strong data also from its oral antiviral treatment Paxlovid.  

In Europe, analysts at ODDO BHF concluded that while omicron is “more transmissible,” it also will lead to fewer hospitalizations. “In such a scenario, it is still advisable to immunize the population with vaccines and regularly boost the immune response instead of letting the virus spread,” the analysts wrote.

RELATED: Pfizer, Moderna, J&J and AstraZeneca assess omicron's effect on their COVID-19 vaccines

ODDO BHF also warns that a “black swan lingers in the background,” where the pandemic is over within a few months.

“Would vaccines then still be needed?” ODDO wrote. “The devil’s advocate question in this case potentially is: Why would one need a vaccine against a cold virus?”

But Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla had words of caution on Wednesday morning.

“I don’t think it’s good news to have something that spreads fast,” Bourla told The Wall Street Journal during an interview at the paper’s CEO Council Summit. “Spreads fast means it will be in billions of people, and another mutation may come. You don’t want that.”