- Pfizer and Moderna are working to develop an Omicron-specific vaccine.
- Human studies for the Pfizer vaccine will begin at the end of January.
- But experts say it’s unclear how helpful these vaccines will be because the Omicron variant has spread so rapidly.
As Omicron sweeps the world faster than any other COVID-19 variant, Pfizer and Moderna are working to develop an Omicron-specific vaccine.
Pfizer reportedly plans to begin human studies of its new vaccine before the end of January, while Moderna is working on its vaccine for the fall.
But with Omicron spreading at such a rapid rate and with more positive COVID-19 infections than ever, is it too late for an Omicron-specific vaccine to be effective?
“Omicron is so contagious that it is predicted that just about all unvaccinated persons, and many vaccinated/boosted, will have experienced the Omicron infection by March,” said Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine, Department of Health Policy, and professor of medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.
“This raises the question whether a specific Omicron vaccine would be needed here at that time,” he added.
A vaccine that targets the Omicron variant could prevent mild infection and severe disease, which the original vaccine has against previous strains, including Delta.
“Perhaps [an Omicron vaccine] could be part of a periodic booster,” said Schaffner. “Perhaps it would be used in other countries that had not yet experienced much Omicron infection.”
Dr. Roy Gulick, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, said it is unclear how helpful these vaccines will be if they are released in the spring.
He noted that current data shows that the original vaccines still work against many variants, including Omicron. But Omicron is responsible for an increase in breakthrough infections, though those infections in the vaccinated and boosted tend to be milder.
“We didn’t know that would be true, but it was demonstrated in literature for Delta,” said Gulick. “If people got the primary series of vaccines with either Pfizer or Moderna, they were protected.”
The second line of thinking is that Omicron, although currently associated with the highest number of cases, has surged and then receded very quickly in South Africa, where it was discovered in November.
According to Gulick, this raises the question, “Do we want to be recommending a vaccine for a variant that may quickly disappear from the scene? The answer is we honestly don’t know.”
With or without an Omicron-specific vaccine, research continues to prove that having some kind of COVID-19 vaccine and a booster is the best line of defense to protect against severe illness and hospitalization.
“At present, it appears that the current vaccines are providing sturdy protection against severe Omicron disease, keeping people out of the hospital,” said Schaffner.
Breakthrough infections are happening, but those who are vaccinated and boosted are experiencing mild symptoms and, by and large, are being kept out of the hospitals. According to the New York Department of Health, new hospitalizations are 14 times higher among the unvaccinated.
If Omicron really is sweeping the globe and will dissipate as quickly as it comes in, what will happen next? If we’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it is that we learn in real-time. If so many people are vaccinated or exposed to Omicron, maybe COVID-19 will be reduced to a low level.
“That would be exciting if it were true,” said Gulick. “The other possibility is a new variant could emerge if we haven’t vaccinated the entire world yet. Or, maybe, it will be a combination of both.”
The best thing that we can do to protect ourselves and others from the Omicron variant, and other variants, is to get vaccines and boosted.
“I want to express my enthusiasm for the mRNA vaccines,” added Gulick. “It’s worth pointing out that these vaccines lend themselves to changes that can be made promptly to cover new strains or new variants.”