Omicron Coronavirus Variant May Require New Pfizer Vaccine
The world faces uncertainty after the latest coronavirus Variant of Concern, B.1.1.529 omicron was detected in South Africa on 24th November 2021. Just days later, frantic analysis globally has revealed its presence in over 20 countries including the UK, USA, France, Spain, Portugal, Israel, Germany, Australia and Canada. Community transmission has been reported in Israel and Scotland to date. Japan, Israel and Morocco acted quickly to close their borders to international travelers and travel restrictions including the requirement of PCR negative tests in vaccinated people have been introduced in many geographics.
One thing we do know about omicron is that initial evidence indicates an increased risk of reinfection compared to the previous VOCs. It also has the ability to cause symptoms in vaccinated individuals. Epidemiologists are worried as there was a significant rise in COVID numbers in South Africa from 1st December (8,561 cases) up from 3,402 cases on 26th November. With such a massive jump in numbers, governments around the world are taking note of this specific VOC.
Omicron Variant of Concern has Significant Infection Risk
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has indicated that omicron has a significant risk of infection, however as of the time of writing no deaths have been associated with it. US President Joe Biden confirmed that it was ‘a cause for concern’ and Dr Fauci indicated that ‘it will spread widely’ and the US is on ‘high alert’.
Ten Times More Spike Protein Mutations
Omicron differs significantly from the previous delta variant in that it has ten times more spike mutations than delta. Overall omicron has 50 mutations, with more than 30 on the spike protein alone, with H655Y, N679K and P681H giving it the ability to enter cells more efficiently. This is possibly one reason that it is more transmissible than delta. Full coronavirus genome sequencing is not required initially to identify omicron, but a simple PCR assay to determine S gene dropout (S gene target failure). Omicron also has 15 receptor binding domain mutations, whereas delta only had three at the RBD.
Overall, as there are so many new mutations in this VOC, it will be more difficult for the human immune system to recognize it after being primed by the current vaccines. Initial observations from South Africa indicate that omicron is more transmissible than previous coronavirus variants, but it is unknown if it’s pathogenesis is more severe.
Can Omicron Evade Immunity Induced by our Current Vaccines?
Vaccine manufacturers are already tweaking their formulations to stand up against omicron in case the current vaccine is not enough. Pfizer has said that it will take less than 100 days to change the formulation and it will work with BioNTech in order to achieve this. Moderna is also upgrading its vaccine, as is Johnson & Johnson. However, the rollout of booster shots globally will further arm the vaccinated population against this new variant and give protection against severe disease.
Within the next two weeks, scientists will be frantically determining whether this new coronavirus variant is more pathogenic and transmissible than previous variants. In order to do this they will perform neutralization assays and also determine the variant-specific vaccine effectiveness.
To date SARS-CoV-2 has infected over 261 million people globally, with almost 5.5 million deaths. A number of vaccines have made it to the market, including formulation’s from Pfizer BionNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca. Over 2.2 billion doses of Pfizer BioNTech’s mRNA vaccine have been administered around the world. Globally, over 8 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered at the time of writing, which is about 37 million daily.
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