United Kingdom

Race against the clock to adapt Covid vaccines over new Omicron variant

Pharmaceutical firms are tweaking their existing Covid vaccines amid fears the Omicron strain could render them less effective (Picture: Reuters; Getty)

Pharmaceutical firms are racing against the clock to adapt their Covid vaccines after the emergence of highly infectious new variant, Omicron.

The strain has been designated a ‘variant of concern’ by the World Health Organisation amid warnings it could spread more rapidly than others.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there was ‘huge international concern’ over the strain, which could make existing vaccines less effective.

The variant, known as B.1.1.529, could also adversely impact one of nation’s Covid treatments, a drug called Ronapreve.

Omicron was originally discovered in South Africa and has since been detected in Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium, the first EU country where the strain has been identified.

The UK has now banned flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia in a bid to stop the spread – as the EU, US and Canada all followed suit to impose travel restrictions on people arriving from southern African regions.

Discussions are ongoing over adding further countries to the red list – although South African officials suggested the flight ban ‘seems to have been rushed’.

But Mr Javid told the Commons the Government would not ‘hesitate to act if we need to do so.’

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Sage advisor Professor John Edmunds warned Omicron could create a ‘very, very, very difficult situation’, branding the new strain a ‘huge worry’.

‘All the data suggests’ it could evade current immunity, Professor Edmunds told BBC Radio 4’s PM show.

And he urged ministers to prepare a plan to deal with Omicron as he warned: ‘at some point we’re going to get this variant here in the UK’.

However, Professor Brendan Wren, of the London School of Hygeine and Tropical Medicine, said it was ‘vital to stay calm and not overreact’ – because scientists can ‘easily modify vaccines to meet new variants’.

European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen said it is important that Europe acts ‘swiftly and decisively’ in the face of the new mutation (Picture: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Professor Wren wrote in the Daily Mail: ‘In the arms race against the virus, humanity is winning – and we are well prepared.

‘This is not the last time another variant will emerge,’ he added.

Pfizer and BioNTech said they could ‘develop and produce a tailor-made vaccine’ in around 100 days, subject to regulatory approval, if a variant was shown to evade vaccines.

Meanwhile AstraZeneca said it has developed, in close collaboration with Oxford University, ‘a vaccine platform that enables us to respond quickly to new variants that may emerge’.

Pfizer and BioNTech say they could ‘develop and produce a tailor-made vaccine’ in around 100 days, (Picture: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

The firms are ‘already conducting research in locations where the variant has been identified’ and testing an antibody combination drug against the new variant, with scientists ‘hopeful’ it ‘will retain efficacy.’

Moderna added: ‘Since early 2021, Moderna has advanced a comprehensive strategy to anticipate new variants of concern.’

Novavax said it has ‘already initiated development of a new recombinant spike protein based on the known genetic sequence of B.1.1.529’.

Testing and manufacturing will begin within the next few weeks.

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