BioNTech and Pfizer vaccine likely to protect against serious illness from Omicron variant, says leader

Vial with Pfizer-BioNTechs Comirnaty vaccine.JEFF PACHOUD / AFP / Getty Images

BioNTech and Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine are likely to offer strong protection against any serious illness from the new Omicron virus variant, BioNTech’s CEO told Reuters as the company weighs the need to upgrade its commonly used shot.

Laboratory tests are underway over the next two weeks to analyze the blood of individuals who have received two or three doses of BioNTech’s Comirnaty vaccine to see if antibodies found in that blood inactivate Omicron, shedding light on whether new vaccines are needed.

“We think it’s likely that people will have significant protection against serious illness caused by Omicron,” said BioNTech CEO and co-founder Ugur Sahin. He specified serious illness that required hospitalization or intensive care.

Sahin added that he expects the laboratory tests to show some loss of vaccine protection against mild to moderate disease due to Omicron, but the extent of this loss was difficult to predict.

The biotech company is working quickly on an upgraded version of its vaccine, of which well over 2 billion doses have been delivered, though it is still unclear if necessary, he added.

Sahin said getting a third vaccine shot known as a booster would likely provide a layer of protection against Omicron infections of any severity compared to those with just a two-shot course.

“In my opinion, there is no reason to be particularly worried. The only thing that worries me at the moment is the fact that there are people who have not been vaccinated at all,” Sahin added.

BioNTech’s guarded confidence contrasts with a sense of alarm conveyed by the CEO of rival vaccine manufacturer Moderna, Stephane Bancel, who has raised the prospect of a significant drop in protection against the new coronavirus lineage from current vaccines.

Sahin said antibodies caused by vaccination could have a hard time grasping the new virus lineage, but he added that t cells, another line of immune defense, were set to recognize the vast majority of Omicron’s spike protein. , which remain unchanged.

While antibodies bind directly to viruses and prevent infections, long-lasting T cells attack cells that have already been hijacked by the virus, averting viral replication and serious disease.

Pfizer and BioNTech have already created versions of their established mRNA-based vaccine – based on the original virus found in China – to target the so-called Alpha and Delta variants, with clinical trials continuing.

These efforts are not intended to provide commercial products, but to establish a routine of regulators that will help accelerate any future vaccine relaunch.

Sahin said that was why regulators were unlikely to require testing on volunteers and an analysis of their immune response for any Omicron-specific vaccine upgrade.

“The advantage is that we have been practicing this pit stop for several months, and if we change tires seriously, we will be able to say that we have demonstrated this before for one variant and for two variants,” Sahin said.

He said he still expects a market launch with an initial batch of 25-50 million doses to take about 100 days, provided regulators are satisfied.

Sahin would not be drawn on whether Omicron will become as dominant as the Delta variant. “But even if that in itself is no cause for panic,” he said.

The European Medicines Agency (IUA) said on Tuesday that it could approve vaccines tailored to target Omicron within three to four months if needed, but that existing shots would continue to provide protection.

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