Early statistics from South Africa on infections with the Omicron variant suggest the existing vaccines still protect against serious illness. The health minister, Joe Phaahla, said at a news conference that while the new variant had infected vaccinated people, it had led to just mild illness. Most patients who had to be admitted to hospitals were unvaccinated, he said.
If new vaccines are needed, Hussein said, “the vaccines designed with mRNA technology will be the easiest and fastest to modify.” The vaccines designed with this technology are the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and the Moderna vaccine.
Studying the Current Vaccines
For his part, Ahmed Salman, a professor of immunology and vaccine development at the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford, said: “Our previous experiences with older variants indicate that the virus will not completely evade the vaccine or the immune system, no matter how the new variant evolves.”
“Conducting laboratory experiments is what will resolve the controversy over this variant and its degree of danger,” said Salman, who is a member of the team that developed the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.
The laboratory tests, which may take from four to six weeks, will include analyzing the antibodies produced by people infected with the new mutation, or studying plasma from vaccine recipients to see if their antibodies are able to recognize and counteract the new variant.
Salman said: “If the vaccine is not able to prevent infection efficiently, it will still be able to very efficiently prevent patients from becoming critical cases.”
The Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical companies have all announced that they are working on new, Omicron-specific versions of their vaccines, in case their current vaccines prove less effective.
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“There is still a lot of uncertainty” about the new variant, Albert Bourla, president of Pfizer Inc., said in an interview with CNBC in late November. Tests of Pfizer’s current vaccine against the new variant are underway to determine whether a new vaccine is needed, he said.
Previously, Pfizer created new versions of its vaccine to counter the Delta and Beta variants, but they were not used.