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Vaccine makers say their regimens will likely protect against Omicron

Syringes of Moderna COVID-19 booster vaccine sat on a table at Lehigh Valley Hospital-Schuylkill East Norwegian Street in Pottsville, Pa., on Tuesday.Lindsey Shuey/Republican-Herald via AP

Executives at two major COVID vaccine makers expressed guarded optimism that the current medicines, administered with a booster, would provide protection against the new Omicron variant, which scientists are racing to understand.

The chairman of Moderna Inc. said in an interview Tuesday that studies show a booster shot of his firm’s two-dose regimen substantially increased disease-fighting antibodies in recipients — by as much as tenfold.

In that scenario, even if the vaccines aren’t as effective against Omicron as they are against other known strains of the coronavirus, the booster “gives you so much of a cushion that you’re OK,” Noubar Afeyan said. He acknowledged that he doesn’t know yet how effective the shots will be, but he added, “if you’re not boosted, then you’re in a bit of a danger zone.”

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Meanwhile, the chief executive of BioNTech, which helped develop a similar COVID-19 vaccine in a partnership with Pfizer, also said on Tuesday that the current generation of shots probably will still protect against severe disease in people infected with the variant. Late on Tuesday, the firm asked the Food and Drug Administration to authorize boosters for 16-and-17-year olds.

Ugur Sahin, BioNTech’s CEO, said the new, highly mutated variant could result in more vaccinated people becoming infected. But even if the variant is able to elude antibodies from the vaccine, it will probably still be targeted by a person’s own immune cells.

“Don’t freak out,” Sahin told Dow Jones in an interview. “The plan remains the same: Speed up the administration of a third booster shot.”

The reassuring remarks come as the medical world is scrambling to find out more about Omicron, including, most crucially, whether the existing vaccines are effective against the new variant or whether companies will need to develop new shots. And if it’s the latter, how quickly would those shots become available?

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Afeyan, who runs the biotech venture investment firm Flagship Pioneering and is a cofounder of the Cambridge biotech, seemed to strike a somewhat more optimistic tone than Moderna’s chief executive, Stéphane Bancel, did in a story in the Financial Times earlier on Tuesday.

Bancel predicted that existing vaccines would be much less effective at tackling Omicron than earlier strains of coronavirus.

“I think it’s going to be a material drop,” he told the Financial Times. “I just don’t know how much because we need to wait for the data. But all the scientists I’ve talked to . . . are like, ‘This is not going to be good.’ “

He said the high number of Omicron mutations on the spike protein, which the virus uses to infect human cells, and the rapid spread in South Africa suggested that the current batch of vaccines may need to be modified next year.

Last Friday, Moderna said that it had three booster strategies it could pursue if studies indicated that Omicron does elude the immune responses triggered by the current vaccines.

Earlier this year, the 11-year-old biotech tested a high-dose booster — one that comes in a 100-microgram dose compared to the current 50-microgram dose — in 306 healthy volunteers. Scientists found that it resulted in the highest level of antibodies against prior coronavirus strains. Moderna is running similar tests of the 100-microgram booster against the Omicron variant. If it wards off Omicron, Afeyan said, the firm could roll out that booster “instantly.”

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In a second approach, Moderna is studying two multivariant booster shots that were designed to combat the Beta and Delta variants, which feature some of the mutations of Omicron. And, finally, the firm is designing an Omicron-specific variant booster shot.

The last two approaches would take considerably more time to do, meaning that it would be several months before new boosters could be manufactured, cleared by federal regulators, and rolled out.

Johnson & Johnson has also said it will test how well its vaccine works against Omicron and develop a booster tailored to the strain if necessary.

“We have begun work to design and develop a new vaccine against Omicron and will rapidly progress it into clinical studies, if needed,” Dr. Mathai Mammen, head of research and development for J&J’s pharmaceutical division, Janssen, said in a statement Monday morning.

President Biden and public health officials have urged people to take the emergence of Omicron seriously but not to panic until scientists gather more information about its impact.

On Monday Scott Gottlieb, a director of Pfizer and former FDA commissioner, told CNBC: “There’s a reasonable degree of confidence in vaccine circles that [with] at least three doses . . . the patient is going to have fairly good protection against this variant.”

Omicron’s relatively rapid detection has proven to be a double-edged sword. Scientists were able to find and flag the potentially worrisome variant early enough to give vaccine manufacturers, government officials, and epidemiologists helpful lead time to study its implications and prepare for its arrival. But it also created a period of limbo where there is mounting anxiety paired with little information.

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Virologists told the Globe that they need to be able to answer three principal questions before making any hard declarations about Omicron.

First, the world needs more data from multiple sources on how rapidly the variant is spreading among diverse groups, and whether it will outcompete the Delta variant. Current data focus on a cohort of mostly younger individuals from Gauteng Province, home to South Africa’s biggest city of Johannesburg and more than a dozen universities.

“I need to see the epidemiological studies that show how Omicron competes with Delta,” said Paul Duprex, a molecular virologist at the helm of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Vaccine Research. “Does it replace Delta, or does it die out like the other variants that Delta superseded?”

John Moore, a virologist at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, views the next few weeks as a battle royale between Delta and Omicron.

“We’re in this perverse situation where you’re rooting for the devil you know over the devil you don’t. If Delta continues to dominate, it’s the devil we know,” Moore said. “And we know that the vaccines can continue to substantially protect against it. We know close to nothing about Omicron.”

The second question involves the mutations inherent in Omicron. The mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna instruct the cell’s machinery to produce a similar spike protein — a harmless replica — that prompts the body to create antibodies to fight off what it sees as an infection, thus preparing it for the real thing. But the more the virus mutates, the more potential it has to evade those antibodies.

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“How resistant is it to the antibodies created by natural infection? And then by one, two, three doses of a vaccine? How about a combination of infection and vaccine?” asked Kevin McCarthy, a microbiologist at the University of Pittsburgh studying the evolution of viruses and their hosts.

Lastly, it remains unknown if Omicron causes more mild or severe cases of COVID-19 than previous iterations of the virus.

“You’re seeing reports in South Africa that Omicron is causing mild infections,” said Moore. “It’s early days, but if the cases are mostly in college kids, then of course the cases are mild because college kids tend to have mild infections. But that doesn’t tell you anything about what Omicron would do to a nursing home population.”



Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jonathan.saltzman@globe.com. Hanna Krueger can be reached at hanna.krueger@globe.com. Follow her @hannaskrueger.