Adjusting vaccines on omikron can be done quickly, but youre not there yet

Moderna chief executive Stรฉphane Bancel dominated news headlines worldwide this morning: he expressed the expectation that the current corona vaccines will be less effective against omikron than against previous variants of the coronavirus. Speculation, experts say: there is still too little hard data for such conclusions.

Yes, the multitude of mutations in the new virus variant are, according to scientists, the RIVM and the World Health Organization, cause concern. But the influence of omikron on the effectiveness of the current vaccinations, or on the antibodies that recovered patients have produced against COVID-19, is still being investigated.

Waiting months

What if, after lab research, it turns out that the vaccines need to be adjusted? According to experts and BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna, the two producers that provide the Netherlands with booster pricks, this could be done in the short term. But it will take at least three months for an adapted product to be produced worldwide. Still apart from other factors that affect when it can be pricked on a large scale.

Because of the mRNA technique, โ€œyou can adjust the genetic code of these vaccines with a click on the computer, so to speak,โ€ says immunologist Dimitri Diavatopoulos (RadboucUMC). Unlike, for example, the means of AstraZeneca and Janssen, those of Pfizer and Moderna are produced completely synthetically.

Quality Controls

If you have developed an omikronadapted vaccine, the production process will take about a week, says Ben van der Zeijst, professor emeritus of vaccines and former head of Vaccines at the RIVM. โ€œSo that can be done very quickly, but then you still have to do a lot of tests and quality checks before the vaccine can be used. They take another four to five weeks to complete. In addition, the factories have to switch to the new vaccine. That way, you will end up in about three months before the new vaccine is widely available.โ€

Manufacturer Pfizer indeed assumes more than three months. A spokesperson says the vaccine can be adjusted in a hundred days and roll off the factory tape on a large scale. The Pfizer spokesperson emphasizes that the effect of omikron on the current vaccine is still being investigated internally. Next week, the company expects the first results.

Moderna chief Bancel said it will take months before a new vaccine can be made on a large scale. DeCCeit has asked the company for an explanation of Bancels statements, but Moderna said he could not respond to that within a day.

โ€œImportant to prepareโ€

Given the composition of the omikron variant, it is obvious that the variant will affect the vaccine effect, says RIVM virologist Chantal Reusken. Still, according to her, it is still too early for conclusions. โ€œIts hard to estimate whats going to happen.โ€ According to her, however, it is important that pharmaceuticals prepare for possible adjustment of the vaccines.

The arrival of the new variant complicates the fight against the epidemic, says Aura Timen of the RIVM:

How quickly a remedy adapted to omikron comes on the market, should it prove necessary, also depends on the European Medicines Agency EMA. It says that a renewed vaccine can approve within three to four months. The agency says that the current vaccines also continue to provide protection against serious illness or death due to COVID-19.

In a new assessment of safety and efficacy, the adjusted vaccine will be tested. Pfizer is now not expecting a comprehensive test phase with tens of thousands of participants like the end of last year, because it is an update of an already approved vaccine.

โ€œCombination vaccine โ€œ?

It would be perfect if the modified vaccine would work both against omikron and other variants of the coronavirus, says immunologist Diavatopoulos. But, according to him, it is also possible that the new remedy only works against the newly discovered variant.

โ€œSo the question is whether producers would make a loose omikron vaccine, or a combination that, for example, also works against the delta variant. If they opt for such a combination vaccine, additional clinical trials may need to be done to find out if the vaccines work well against all variants in that case. And that will slow down the entire program again.โ€

Prick again in March?

Next, the big question is when the pharmaceuticals manage to deliver billions of doses. Given the sharply scaled capacity, according to experts, this should be done faster than before. However, the demand for the new shot will always exceed the supply in the initial stages.

If everything goes wrong, vaccineologist Van der Zeijst thinks that a new vaccination campaign could start in the course of March. At least: in Europe, the US or other rich countries. โ€œIn the pandemicit turned out that they first take what they need before the other countries get their turn.โ€