Late last month, shortly after it emerged from South Africa, the Omicron variant of the coronavirus was classified as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization.
On Wednesday, WHO held a press briefing at its headquarters about the new variant, stating that the new variant has the potential to change the course of the pandemic, according to CNBC.
While WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated that it is “still difficult to know” exactly what course the pandemic might take, it remains a concern, largely because of the mutations in the new variant.
“Certain features of omicron, including its global spread and large number of mutations, suggest it could have a major impact on the course of the pandemic,” Tedros said Wednesday.
During the briefing, WHO’s technical lead on the pandemic, Maria Van Kerkhove, state that while some evidence shows cases from the Omicron variant are milder than earlier variants of the virus, it remains early, and those who were infected first may not have reached the worst parts of the illness.
As of Wednesday, cases of the new variant had been reported in fifty-seven countries.
The other big question when it comes to Omicron is vaccine effectiveness. An early report out of South Africa, based on a small number of cases, found that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is rendered less effective by the new variant.
However, Pfizer and BioNTech on Wednesday released an update of their own, showing that according to their own preliminary data, three doses of their vaccine effectively “neutralize” the Omicron variant, while two doses “significantly reduced neutralization titers.”
“Although two doses of the vaccine may still offer protection against severe disease caused by the Omicron strain, it’s clear from these preliminary data that protection is improved with a third dose of our vaccine,” Albert Bourla, the chairman and chief executive officer of Pfizer, said in that update. “Ensuring as many people as possible are fully vaccinated with the first two dose series and a booster remains the best course of action to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
The two companies announced that they are developing an Omicron-specific COVID-19 vaccine and that they expected it to be ready for delivery within one hundred days. They project that the delivery date will be in March of 2022.
The companies said they have previously held clinical trials for other vaccines aimed at specific variants, and that data from those studies will be sent to different regulatory agencies, in order to “help accelerate the process of adapting the vaccine and gaining regulatory authorization or approval of an Omicron-specific vaccine, if needed.”
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.