First data from laboratory studies suggests the Omicron coronavirus variant can dodge the protection given by vaccines, although booster shots may help if enough doses can be administered quickly enough.
In the last 24 hours, study results from South Africa, Sweden and Germany, as well as from vaccine maker BioNTech, all suggest Omicron can “escape” the immunity gained via vaccination. But results vary.
Preliminary data from South Africa, where Omicron was first detected last month, indicates that two doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine are largely ineffective against the variant. Immunity was stronger, however, for those who had also had prior infection.
Early results from Germany show the Omicron variant can beat all the vaccines in use in Europe but a third dose provides some protection. This result was mirrored in the preliminary data released by BioNTech, the German firm that markets its shot together with U.S. partner Pfizer.
“It is very clear our vaccine for the Omicron variant should be a three-dose vaccine,” Ugur Sahin, co-founder and chief executive of BioNTech, told a press briefing.
Additionally, early results from a study in Sweden point to a wide range of outcomes, from little loss of immunity to a 25-fold decrease in neutralization of antibodies.
The news comes as rates of Omicron infections across Europe accelerate and are no longer attributable solely to foreign travel. The U.K. has recorded 568 cases in total while Denmark has identified 577 cases.
Neil Ferguson, professor of mathematical biology at Imperial College London, told the BBC: “Case numbers of Omicron are doubling at least every three days, maybe even every two days at the moment.”
Omicron was “likely to overtake Delta before Christmas at this rate,” added Ferguson, referring to the now-dominant strain that is driving Europe’s latest wave of infection, putting large numbers of critical patients into hospital intensive care units.
Governments across the world are watching closely for information on whether vaccines will continue to protect people from infection and severe disease from the Omicron variant. Countries in Europe are focusing efforts on primary and booster vaccinations to protect their citizens.
The first data, however, paints a picture of limited protection against infection, at least from a primary course of vaccination.
‘Don’t wait, just boost’
The laboratory study, carried out by the Africa Health Research Institute, examined whether antibodies elicited from vaccinated people and those who had also been vaccinated and infected prevented the virus from entering human cells.
Samples were taken from 12 fully vaccinated people, half of whom had had prior infection.
The authors say the data suggests “much more extensive escape” with Omicron than with the Beta variant, which was also first identified in South Africa.
South Africa stopped using the AstraZeneca vaccine when Beta was discovered since vaccine escape was also observed.
While the South African study is small, it is the first to report on vaccine efficacy against Omicron. And importantly, it also uses sequenced and “confirmed live Omicron virus isolated in South Africa,” the authors state in their report.
Preliminary data from Germany on Wednesday was also derived from lab tests using a live version of the Omicron virus.
This test examined vaccine immunity escape from blood samples of people fully vaccinated six months ago with BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna, and people who’d had one dose of Oxford/AstraZeneca and one dose of BioNTech/Pfizer.
This test suggested 0 percent neutralization with Omicron, according to Sandra Ciesek, director of the Institute of Medical Virology at Frankfurt University.
But a test of samples three months after a third dose of BioNTech/Pfizer showed 25 percent neutralization against Omicron — compared with 95 percent against Delta, Ciesek pointed out.
While Ciesek said the data “confirm that developing a vaccine adapted for Omicron makes sense,” she added a caveat that it does not provide information on protection against severe disease and it does not test for T-cell protection.
Christian Drosten, head of virology at Berlin’s Charité hospital, said on Twitter that “a 40-fold reduction in neutralization activity does NOT mean that the vaccination will protect 40 times less. The real loss of immunity is much less.”
“At the moment triple vaccination is the best protection. New vaccines only after the winter wave. Don’t wait, just boost,” he added.
A laboratory study from Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet released overnight showed slightly different results.
This looked at 17 random recent blood donors in Stockholm and a set of 17 previously infected hospital workers who had also been vaccinated.
“Almost all serum samples evaluated retained some neutralization activity against the Omicron variant,” the authors write, but the results were “exceptionally variable,” according to Ben Murrell, a researcher at the institute.
The researchers do caution, however, that their study is preliminary, not yet peer-reviewed and did not use the live virus. They used a so-called pseudovirus assay developed from knowledge about the Omicron mutations.
The vaccine makers themselves are carrying out their own neutralization tests with their vaccines against Omicron.
Targeted jab by March
BioNTech’s data was first to land on Wednesday.
Its laboratory studies suggest the Omicron coronavirus variant can escape vaccine immunity from two doses, although booster shots may provide protection, especially from severe disease. The companies said the cellular immune response may also protect against severe disease, even from two doses.
It’s still not known if a modified shot will be necessary, but BioNTech told journalists in a briefing it’s preparing manufacturing capacity and could have up to 75 million doses of an Omicron-targeted jab by March.
AstraZeneca is conducting real-world studies on the effects of its vaccine against Omicron in Botswana and Eswatini, as well as doing lab studies with a pseudo-virus.
Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are also testing their vaccines’ efficacy against Omicron.
Meanwhile, the German study also assessed the efficacy of monoclonal antibodies in the treatment of Omicron infection.
The data suggests that Roche/Regeneron’s therapy, imdevimab and casirivimab, is “ineffective with Omicron,” Ciesek said. The U.K. government has already warned this medicine may be ineffective in the treatment of Omicron infections.
Early results with GlaxoSmithKline’s sotrovimab suggest this antibody therapy retains some efficacy in treating the variant. This study was done using a pseudovirus synthesized for the tests.
This story has been updated.
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