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Coronavirus vaccine makers race to address omicron variant

The WHO warned that the omicron variant poses a “very high” global risk, urging countries to speed up vaccinations. (Dedi Sinuhaji/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Vaccine makers are rushing to explore ways to tailor their coronavirus shots to combat the newly identified omicron variant, which is prompting countries around the world to tighten restrictions to stop the spread.

Germany’s BioNTech and its partner Pfizer, as well as the U.S. firm Moderna, are working to understand what level of protection their vaccines offer and how to adapt them amid concern that the variant’s mutations may make it more transmissible and help it evade the body’s immune response.

Experts say waiving patents won’t help poorer nations acquire the technical complexity of manufacturing coronavirus vaccines. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

Omicron coronavirus variant poses ‘very high’ global risk, WHO warns

Moderna has mobilized hundreds of people as it anticipates that its vaccine could lose some efficacy against the variant, and a new version of the shot could be available by next year if needed, executives said.

BioNTech said in a statement Monday that it had moved quickly to launch the first steps of development, which will overlap with research on whether a new shot is needed, and that it would have more answers in about two weeks.

Along with Pfizer, the company is conducting clinical trials to test the vaccine against other variants, and the two said last week they could have a tailor-made vaccine in about 100 days if necessary.

What to know about the omicron variant of the coronavirus

As researchers race to understand the omicron variant, some countries have closed borders and others have tightened public health restrictions. The Biden administration is encouraging more people to get booster shots in the meantime.

Since the omicron variant’s detection prompted travel bans on the southern region of Africa, many public health officials have highlighted the disparity in vaccinations between richer and poorer nations, stressing the need to immunize the underserved to boost the world’s protection.

Moderna — which said Friday that it would advance an omicron-specific booster candidate — “should know about the ability of the current vaccine to provide protection in the next couple of weeks,” said its chief medical officer, Paul Burton, speaking Sunday on the BBC. “We’ve mobilized hundreds of people,” he said. “If we have to make a brand-new vaccine, I think that’s going to be early 2022 before that’s really going to be available in large quantities.”

Biden administration focuses on booster shots as best strategy against new coronavirus variant

Although the biotech company expects “a loss of vaccine efficacy to prevent disease,” the omicron variant would not subvert all the protection from the shot, Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said in a television interview Monday. He added that it would take months to start shipping a version specific to the omicron variant.

“I don’t believe many people would have predicted such a big jump in evolution in one variant,” Bancel told CNBC. “We need to get more data to confirm this, but it seems to be much more infectious” than the delta variant.

The World Health Organization warned Monday that the omicron variant poses a “very high” global risk and would spread, recommending that governments around the world improve their ability to sequence coronavirus variants and speed up vaccinations.

Cases of the new variant, which has a high number of mutations, have popped up in Europe, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong and other countries since scientists in South Africa first detected it last week.