Update (1130ET): In Germany, Chancellor-in-waiting Olaf Scholz said Tuesday that the Bundestag would vote on whether to back compulsory vaccinations. He blamed the unvaccinated, raising questions about whether the Germans truly see the omicron variant as a threat. If so, will these mandatory vaccinations apply to a new round of omicron-specific vaccines?
Elsewhere in Berlin, BioNTech co-founder Dr. Ugur Sahin warned that the omicron variant might evade antibodies generated by the vaccines, the omicron variant would likely remain vulnerable to immune cells that destroy the virus once it enters the body. Put another way, Sahin said, his message to the world is: 'Don't freak out.'.
[Note: globally, only 226 cases of omicron have been confirmed, and zero cases have been confirmed in the US].
Whatever happens with omicron, Sahin said, BioNTech's plan remains the same: convince more people to get their booster jabs.
"Our message is: Don’t freak out, the plan remains the same: Speed up the administration of a third booster shot," Dr. Sahin said in an interview Tuesday.
Based on current knowledge about the mechanisms behind the vaccine and the biology of variants like omicron, Dr. Sahin said he assumed that immunized people would have a high level of protection against severe disease, even if they are infected by omicron.
Delta, the variant that presently dominates the world, has shown itself more adept at infecting vaccinated people than earlier variants. In that sense, omicron is hardly unique.
What's more, the vaccine developed by BioNTech and Pfizer has a multi-layered response. The first stage involves triggering antibodies, which should stop patients from being reinfected because antibodies should stop the virus from spreading to health cells.
But if the virus does 'break through', infections should only be mild, since the second layer of protections involves triggering T-cells, which are immune cells n the body that mobilize to destroy infected cells after an infection has taken hold. No variant has eluded the T-cell response, and it's unlikely that omicron will achieve what scientists call full "immune escape" - that is, dodge both the antibodies and the T-cell response.
"Our belief [that the vaccines work against Omicron] is rooted in science: If a virus achieves immune escape, it achieves it against antibodies, but there is the second level of immune response that protects from severe disease—the T-cells," he said.
"Even as an escape variant, the virus will hardly be able to completely evade the T-cells."
Sahin's comments were framed as a response to Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel, who sent shares of his own company spiraling lower, along with the rest of the market, by doubling down on omicron FUD in comments to the press, warning that the current generation of vaccines may not offer any protection against omicron.
Still, Sahin welcomed the UK's decision to offer booster shots to all adults just three months after they had received their second jabs. BioNTech is already conducting laboratory tests to see whether the omicron variant could infect people who have been vaccinated. The tests, which started last week and take about two weeks to produce results, won’t show whether the variant causes severe disease; this can only be evidenced by real-life clinical practice.
Sahin agreed with Bancel that it wouldn't take long for the major vaccine players to produce another round of jabs. A new vaccine could be ready in under 100 days, Sahin said.
The real question is whether people will still care about omicron 100 days from now.
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After careful consideration, readers could be forgiven for believing the omicron variant is really just an early Christmas present for mRNA vaccine makers, who are pounding the alarm about the purported risks, likely because they see dollar signs. The South African scientists who initially discovered omicron (the latest in a string of variants first identified in South Africa) have already attached a giant caveat to their initial warning. They said early this week that while omicron might spread more easily than delta, early data suggest it isn't as deadly, and that the sickness it causes is less intense.
Vaccine-makers have long been waiting for these reports about a new killer mutation that might enable them to sell millions more vaccine doses in the US and around the world. Apparently, the drive to boost their top-line sales growth to meet Wall Street's increasingly lofty expectations has overridden their purported obligation to "the science".
But in case you, dear reader, were wondering: "the science" hasn't yet decided. Dr. Gottlieb, who is on Pfizer's board of directors, said early Tueday that there's reason to be optimistic that boosted jabs will provide "meaningful protection" against the omicron variant (the opposite of what Moderna wants us to believe).
There’s reason to be optimistic current boosted vaccines will provide meaningful protection against #Omicron - based on both evaluation of new sequence, prior experience with strains with some immune escape, as well as emerging clinical feedback from RSA. https://t.co/COoKevrBm5 pic.twitter.com/XYCT0CMLbP— Scott Gottlieb, MD (@ScottGottliebMD) November 30, 2021
Gottlied cited a recent study out of Israel to help bolster his argument.
Data show vax can maintain clinical effectiveness against strains w/immune escape even when neutralization declines a lot in test tube studies. Breadth, diversity of antibodies also matter. Boosters broaden antibody response, generating antibodies that target more sites on virus. pic.twitter.com/BJdPI66nTH— Scott Gottlieb, MD (@ScottGottliebMD) November 30, 2021
But beyond Gottlieb, the University of Oxford, which helped develop the UK's AstraZeneca COVID jab, said Tuesday that data on omicron and its efficacy remains "limited", and that it would "carefully evaluate" the impact of the variant on its own shot, echoing an AstraZeneca statement from last week. Oxford also pointed out that the first generation of vaccines has remained effective despite a parade of new variants that have emerged over the past year.
Reuters cited some excerpts from Oxford's statement.
"Despite the appearance of new variants over the past year, vaccines have continued to provide very high levels of protection against severe disease and there is no evidence so far that Omicron is any different," it said in a statement. "However, we have the necessary tools and processes in place for rapid development of an updated COVID-19 vaccine if it should be necessary."
Bloomberg picked up on Oxford's latest statement a few minutes ago.
Via @TheTerminal, the University of Oxford says it is evaluating the implications of Omicron's appearance on vaccine immunity, but also says vaccines have been effective against all variants so far and "there is no evidence so far that Omicron is any different.”— Josh Wingrove (@josh_wingrove) November 30, 2021
But the contradiction between Oxford and Moderna left us tickled.
The Science vs The Science: Round 1— zerohedge (@zerohedge) November 30, 2021
*OXFORD UNIVERSITY: NO EVIDENCE OMICRON DEFEATS VACCINE
In other words: public health authorities shouldn't panic about the omicron variant. It's time for us all to take a deep breath and wait for more data to trickle in over the next two weeks.
But Dr. Anthony Fauci would probably be satisfied to see Americans lining up for their booster jabs, although he may have unwittingly undermined the case for getting them, since millions of Americans will likely opt to wait to see if omicron necessitates another round of as-yet-undeveloped jabs.