Omicron was declared the COVID-19 latest variant of concern by the World Health Organization on Nov. 26. Vaccine makers quickly seized the opportunity. Moderna announced quickly that they were developing an Omicron-specific vaccine. They also continue to research a higher dose than the current shot and a combined vaccine that is protected against one of SARS-CoV-2 variations. BioNTech, which co-developed its vaccine with Pfizer pharmaceutical giant, started studying whether the two-dose shot it uses to protect Omicron. A spokesperson for the company said that results might be ready in two weeks. In the meantime, Pfizer-BioNTech are also preparing an Omicron-targeted vaccine that could take six weeks to develop, plus another several months to test—which means if needed, that vaccine could be available next spring.
Moderna as well as Pfizer BioNTech designed their COVID-19 vaccinations by using mRNA technology. They were able to move quickly from finding the exact genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 viruses to inserting them into vaccines to create a strong immune response. It is flexible and can be used to create additional vaccines against other genetic targets, like Omicron.
The results of lab studies that test vaccine-induced antibodies against Omicron in vitro will determine if a vaccine to directly target Omicron is necessary. People will need to be given a booster shot of any approved or current vaccines to maintain Omicron control. This booster shot will increase protection, and may prevent Omicron-infected people from becoming seriously ill with COVID-19.
If Omicron’s protection levels are low, vaccine developers and public health officials will have to determine two things. First, they will decide if people should be revaccinated with Omicron using two doses of an Omicron-targeted mRNA vaccine.
Vaccine makers using other technology, such as Johnson&Johnson-Janssen and AstraZeneca, are also testing how their shots fare against Omicron. The vaccines contain snippets genetic material, which is in the form DNA. This allows cells to produce the viral proteins the immune system seeks. AstraZeneca began studies in Botswana, Eswatini and other countries where Omicron cases are reported.
The latest variant isn’t a surprise to vaccine and public health experts, who warn that other variants like it are inevitable if vaccination rates remain low around the world. Viruses mutate when they copy their genetic material to duplicate themselves—basically, when they infect someone. As the virus infects more people, and copies more of its genetic material to reproduce itself, it is more likely that the virus will create mutations such as Omicron. Vaccines dampen the virus’ ability to replicate, so creating some vaccine-based defense by getting good vaccine coverage in as much of the population as possible is the best weapon against any new, potentially more contagious and dangerous variants.