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J&J joins Pfizer and Moderna in vowing to target Omicron variant

A medical staff member holds syringes with doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at a temporary vaccination center Saturday in Paris.STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP via Getty Images

Johnson & Johnson joined Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna on Monday in saying it will test how well its vaccine works against the worrisome variant that emerged in southern Africa and will develop a booster tailored to the strain, called Omicron, if necessary.

Dr. Mathai Mammen, head of research and development for J&J’s pharmaceutical division, Janssen, said the firm had confidence that its vaccine stimulated a robust and lasting immune response. Nonetheless, the New Jersey-based health care company is working with scientists in South Africa to gauge its real-world effectiveness against the new variant, which has spread quickly in that region and been identified in countries outside Africa, including in Britain, Belgium, Australia, Canada, and Israel.


“In parallel, we have begun work to design and develop a new vaccine against Omicron and will rapidly progress it into clinical studies, if needed,” Mammen said in a statement Monday morning.

Dr. Dan Barouch, head of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, which helped to develop the J&J vaccine and tested it on laboratory animals, said his lab is starting to synthesize the heavily mutated spike protein of the new variant using the genetic sequence that was posted online on Thanksgiving by South African scientists. But Barouch said it will be a few weeks before his lab can run tests to determine if the three vaccines cleared in the US work against Omicron.

Pfizer’s German partner, BioNTech, said Friday it expects to have more laboratory data on the effectiveness of its messenger RNA vaccine against Omicron “in two weeks at the latest.” If the variant can elude the immune responses stimulated by the vaccine, the company should be able to tweak the vaccine within six weeks and ship initial batches within 100 days, the firm said.


Moderna, whose vaccine also relies on mRNA, issued a similar statement on Friday, saying it is testing boosters against variants with features similar to Omicron. The company said it is also working on an Omicron-specific booster and has repeatedly demonstrated that it can get new potential coronavirus vaccines into clinical trials in two to three months.

Unlike the mRNA vaccines, the J&J vaccine uses a virus that causes colds to deliver part of the spike protein of the coronavirus into cells to stimulate an immune response. The Food and Drug Administration has authorized booster shots in adults for all three vaccines because of concerns about waning immune responses.

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jonathan.saltzman@globe.com.