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South Africa report offers first glimpse at how vaccinated people fare against Omicron

Prepared doses of Pfizer-BioNTech's coronavirus vaccine.DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images

A report out of South Africa offered a first glimpse at how vaccinated people might fare against the fast-spreading omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Laboratory experiments found that omicron seems to dull the power of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, but also hinted that people who have received a booster shot might be better protected.

The study, published online Tuesday, found that antibodies produced by vaccinated people were much less successful at keeping the omicron variant from infecting cells than other forms of the coronavirus.

Scientists said the results were somewhat worrisome, but no cause for panic. The data suggests that vaccinated people might be vulnerable to breakthrough infections with omicron, which has appeared in dozens of countries around the world.

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But vaccines stimulate a wide-ranging immune response that involves more than just antibodies. So these experiments offer an incomplete picture of how well the vaccine protects against hospitalization or death from omicron.

“While I think there’s going to be a lot of infection, I’m not sure this is going to translate into systems collapsing,” Alex Sigal, a virologist at the Africa Health Research Institute in Durban, South Africa, who led the research, said. “My guess is that it’ll be under control.”

Originally, Sigal feared that vaccines might not provide any protection at all. It was possible that the omicron variant had evolved a new way of entering cells, which would have rendered antibodies from vaccines useless. Fortunately, that proved not to be the case.

Sigal and his colleagues used antibodies from six people who received the Pfizer vaccine without ever having had COVID-19. They also analyzed antibodies from six other people who had been infected before getting the Pfizer vaccine.

The researchers found that the antibodies from all of the volunteers performed worse against omicron than they did against an earlier version of the coronavirus. Overall, their antibodies’ potency against omicron dropped dramatically, to about 1/40th of the level seen when tested with an earlier version of the virus. That low level of antibodies may not protect against breakthrough infections.

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Pfizer and Moderna have said that they would be able to produce vaccines specifically tailored to the variant in roughly three months.