Will our current vaccines protect against the worrisome new COVID variant? Here’s everything we know about the Omicron variant and vaccines.
We were still digesting the rise of the old variants when reports of a worrisome new COVID variant rolled in. There is so much we don’t know about B.1.1.529, which has been dubbed Omicron since November 26 and has been classified as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization (WHO). But we know enough that virus experts and health officials are urgently sounding the alarm. First reported in South Africa on November 24, Omicron is spreading rapidly and appears to have the potential to overtake Delta. Although it has only been confirmed in a handful of countries, it has an astonishing number of mutations that experts believe could make it the most dangerous COVID variant yet, including the potential ability to evade immune responses. The most pressing question, therefore, is whether our existing COVID vaccines also protect against the Omicron variant.
Cause for Concern
The limited data we have is certainly cause for concern. The New York Times reports that “scientists are currently unclear how effective vaccines will be against the new variant discovered by a team in South Africa, which has mutations that could resist neutralization.” According to the Financial Times, Omicron has more than 30 mutations to the spike protein that the virus uses to bind to human cells. This could make it more transmissible and increase the likelihood of breakthrough infections in fully vaccinated individuals.
Unfortunately, because this is such a new variant with so few cases studied, the question of how effective Omicron might be at circumventing vaccine protection cannot yet be answered with certainty. However, The Guardian notes that experts are particularly concerned about certain mutations “associated with changes in the spike protein that could distinguish it beyond recognition from the version of COVID against which our vaccines were developed.”
For now, health officials are warning the public to be on high alert, but not to panic. That can be a challenge when so much is still unknown – and when the information we have isn’t particularly promising. As Jesse Bloom, PhD, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, told the Washington Post, Omicron’s mutations could make it harder for antibodies created by vaccination (and earlier infection) to fight the virus.
“It’s too early to tell how this will affect the likelihood of infection, even if people are vaccinated,” Bloom said. “But a drop in antibody neutralization is never a good thing.
Vaccines can work that way, too
But it’s important to note that a decrease in the protective effect of COVID vaccines doesn’t mean the vaccines would stop working completely. In a November 26 Twitter thread on Omicron, Ashish K. Jha, MD, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, acknowledged that the new variant is concerning, reiterating, “There are a number of mutations in key regions that may affect the effectiveness of our vaccines.”
However, Jha was quick to add that the vaccines will almost certainly work against Omicron. “Will the variant render the vaccines useless? No. Very unlikely,” he wrote on Twitter.
Other virus experts are inclined to agree. “My expectation would be that the mutations in this variant will not override or completely bypass the kind of antibody neutralization provided by the vaccines,” Bloom told The Washington Post.
According to the newspaper, Ian Sanne, an infectious disease specialist and member of the South African Ministerial Advisory Board for COVID, said at a Nov. 26 press conference that early data show a higher number of breakthrough Omicron infections in South Africa, but that the vaccines appear to prevent the most severe outcomes, with the majority of hospitalizations occurring among the unvaccinated.
“We have all the evidence that the vaccines are still effective in preventing severe illness and/or complications,” Sanne said, but acknowledged that there is currently very little data to analyse.
Researchers around the world are now rushing studies to learn all they can about the Omicron variant, including how effective existing COVID vaccines are against it. According to Reuters, Pfizer and BioNTech are testing their vaccine against Omicron and should have results within two weeks. In a statement, the companies said, “These data will provide more information about whether B.1.1.529 may be an outbreak variant that could require us to adjust our vaccine if it spreads globally.”
If the vaccine proves unfit for the variant, Pfizer and BioNTech could make a new vaccine targeting Omicron available within 100 days. According to Reuters, Moderna has also announced that it is testing a booster tailored to Omicron. In the meantime, however, health officials and experts stress that the best way to protect against any COVID variant is to be fully vaccinated and receive a booster shot with one of the existing vaccines.
In a November 26 statement, President Joe Biden stressed the importance of taking these important protective measures. “For those Americans who are fully vaccinated against severe COVID – and fortunately, that is the vast majority of our adults – the best way to strengthen their protection is to receive a booster vaccination as soon as they are eligible,” Biden said. “For those who are not yet fully vaccinated: Get vaccinated today.”