Are Current COVID Vaccines Effective Against Omicron?

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  • Drugmaker’s CEO warns of ‘material drop’ in effectiveness
  • Markets fall on fears of prolonged pandemic
  • Time needed to see if vaccines work against Omicron
  • Japan reports first case as new variant spreads

The chief executive of drugmaker Moderna set off fresh alarm bells in financial markets on Tuesday with a warning that existing COVID-19 vaccines would be less effective against the new Omicron variant than they have been against Delta, reports Reuters.

Current vaccines 

However, European Medicines Agency (EMA) executive director Emer Cooke told the European Parliament that, even if the new variant becomes more widespread, existing vaccines will continue to provide protection.

The University of Oxford said there was no evidence that current vaccines would not prevent severe disease from Omicron, but that it was ready to rapidly engineer an updated version of its shot, developed with AstraZeneca (AZN.L), if necessary.

“The World Health Organization classified Omicron as a “variant of concern,” due to the number of mutations that might help it spread or evade antibodies from prior infection or vaccination.

Moderna and fellow drugmakers BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ.N) are already working on vaccines that specifically target Omicron. Moderna has also been testing a higher dose of its existing booster. 

An upsurge in new coronavirus variants and poor access to vaccines in developing countries threaten a full recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lab tests

Moderna did not reply to a Reuters request for comment, or say when it expects to have data on the effectiveness of its vaccine on Omicron, which the World Health Organization (WHO) says carries a very high risk of infection surges.

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals said its COVID-19 antibody cocktail and other similar antiviral treatments could be less effective against the latest variant. 

Cooke said lab tests for “cross neutralisation” would take about two weeks. If there were a need to change COVID-19 vaccines, new ones could be approved within three or four months, she added.

Travel restrictions 

Uncertainty about the new variant has triggered border closures that have cast a shadow over a nascent economic recovery from the pandemic, just as parts of Europe see a fourth wave of infections as winter sets in.

Many of the travel restrictions have focused, to South Africa’s fury, on banning flights to and from southern Africa.

Japan, the world’s third largest economy, confirmed its first case of the new variant on Tuesday, in a traveller from Namibia. Australia found that a person with Omicron had visited a busy shopping centre in Sydney while probably infectious.

Border controls

Britain and the United States have both pushed their booster programmes in response to the new variant. England made face masks compulsory once again in shops and on public transport, and London said international arrivals would have to self-isolate until they get a negative result in a PCR test.

Greece said vaccination would be compulsory for the over-60s, the group seen as most vulnerable to COVID-19.

Australia on Monday delayed the reopening of its international borders by two weeks, less than 36 hours before foreign students and skilled migrants were to be allowed back.

But in Germany, a current hotspot of the previous significant variant, Delta, the seven-day average infection rate fell slightly for the first time in three weeks after new restrictions to slow transmission.

Neighboring Austria, which imposed its fourth full lockdown last week in response to a surge in infections, also registered a drop.

Impact on stock market

U.S. stock index futures were down more than 1%.Crude oil futures shed just under 3%, while Tokyo’s Nikkei index closed down 1.6%.

News of Omicron’s emergence had wiped roughly $2 trillion off global stocks on Friday, after it was identified in southern Africa and announced on Nov. 25.

Major European stock markets, spooked by fears that vaccine resistance may prolong the two-year-old pandemic, were down about 1% at around 1300 GMT.

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Source: Reuters

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