Omicron variant: mRNA vaccine technology has the edge

BABE’S EYE VIEW FROM WASHINGTON D.C. - Ambassador B. Romualdez - The Philippine Star

Undoubtedly, the new coronavirus Omicron variant has caused widespread concern because it shows multiple mutations, with early evidence indicating that it may have increased transmissibility compared to the Delta variant. But there is still a lot to be scientifically discovered and known about this new variant, and scientists here in the United States are working 24/7 to get the right answers. We were told by the White House that we should know within the next 10 days the results regarding its virality, and whether it can evade vaccines and cause severe illness.

The World Health Organization has confirmed Omicron infections in 23 countries that include the United States, with border closures once again imposed to prevent community transmission. But as President Biden had stressed, this should not be a cause for panic. While it’s possible that Omicron may have “immune escape” potential or the capacity to evade immunity from prior infection – scientists believe vaccines still continue to provide “a good degree of protection” and will at least slow down the spread of the variant and prevent severe illness.

According to Professor Salim Abdool Karim, a South African epidemiologist who wrote the article “Omicron SARS-CoV-2 variant: a new chapter in the COVID-19 pandemic” published in The Lancet, while there is very early evidence of increased transmissibility and reinfection among those who have been vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19, people should not “make too much of the early data.”

In our regular interactions with Moderna and Pfizer – both of which have developed COVID-19 vaccines using the mRNA (messenger RNA) technology – it is apparent that both companies have been very proactive, reviewing and assessing the efficacy of their vaccines and developing booster shots that would target mutations from new variants such as Omicron.

There is no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the superiority of mRNA technology through the COVID-19 vaccines that have proven to be the most effective, providing very high levels of protection. Scientists such as Yale University professor of immunology, epidemiology and molecular, cellular and developmental biology Akiko Iwasaki point to the relative ease and speed with which companies can develop “very, very good vaccines” using mRNA technology as it only took Moderna several weeks to develop its COVID-19 vaccine and make it ready for testing and clinical trials, compared to traditional approaches that take so much longer for vaccines to be developed.

The beauty of mRNA technology, many scientists all over the world agree, is that the time needed to create boosters that would target specific variants is shortened, because existing vaccines can be tweaked or adjusted to produce variant-specific shots within several weeks. It’s pretty much like upgrading cellphones or smart gadgets though software downloads to make them responsive to the changing needs of users. Many agree – mRNA technology is the solution to lead the world out of this pandemic.

BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin, whose company developed the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine in partnership with Pfizer, said they are working on an upgraded version of their current vaccine quickly in response to Omicron, and is confident that people will still have substantial protection against severe disease caused by the new variant. “The only thing that worries me at the moment is the fact that there are people who have not been vaccinated at all,” Sahin said.

Pfizer and BioNTech have assured that actions have been taken “months ago to be able to adapt the mRNA vaccine within six weeks and ship initial batches within 100 days in the event of an escape variant.”

Moderna, on the other hand, said their booster shot will be ready by March next year. Aside from an Omicron-specific booster candidate, the company is also working on “multi-valent” booster candidates to anticipate mutations from the Omicron variant as well as the Beta and Delta strains. The company is also reviewing the efficacy of 100 micrograms of vaccine as a booster for the Omicron variant as opposed to the current booster of 50 micrograms. According to the company, they can advance the booster candidates to clinical testing within 60 to 90 days.

The real good news is coming from Pfizer. The company submitted its application this month to the FDA to authorize their pill, Paxlovid, for emergency use. The company says the pill reduces serious illness, hospitalization and death by 89 percent. Pfizer is very confident that this oral drug can work for all known mutations including Omicron, and is continuously working on other drugs just in case there is resistance to the drug down the line. Psychologically for all of us, this is absolutely good news.

What is important, however, is that this new variant still underscores the need for vaccination to protect people from severe illness and even death, and at the same time, lessen the chances of the coronavirus to spread and mutate into more virulent and threatening variants. The ramping up of our vaccination rollout in the Philippines, registering one of the highest single-day jabs worldwide with over 2.7 million people vaccinated last Nov. 29, is wonderful news, too.

The best tool to fight COVID-19 is still the vaccines, and those who have been vaccinated and had their booster shots are better poised to get back to life that is as close to “normal” as we can get prior to the pandemic. Those who continue to refuse getting vaccinated are practically playing Russian roulette – endangering other people’s lives, including themselves.

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