The scientist behind the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has urged the public not “freak out” over the emergence of the Omicron variant, stressing that it is likely jabs will still provide protection against the disease.
Dr Ugur Sahin, the co-founder of BioNTech, said that while the new strain was likely to partially evade antibodies acquired through vaccination, the immune system had other lines of defence.
“Our message is: Don’t freak out, the plan remains the same: Speed up the administration of a third booster shot,” Dr Sahin told the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.
Governments across the world are racing to speed up their booster vaccination campaign as the variant spreads. Boris Johnson on Tuesday announced all adults would be offered a third dose by the end of January.
Scientists have expressed concern over the high number of mutations located within the Omicron cell’s spike protein – the part of the virus targeted by current vaccines. It is feared that increased transmissibility combined with vaccine escape could lead to pressure on health systems.
However, Dr Sahin said he remained confident the virus would not be able to evade immunity from T-cells, which scientists believe lasts longer than antibodies.
“We think it’s likely that people will have substantial protection against severe disease caused by Omicron,” he said.
“Our belief [that the vaccines work against omicron] is rooted in science: If a virus achieves immune escape, it achieves it against antibodies, but there is the second level of immune response that protects from severe disease — the T-cells.”
Meanwhile, the prime minister told a Downing Street press conference on Tuesday that the Government was still seeking “reassurance” that jabs did protect against the virus.
But he added: “Even if the efficacy... is reduced it’s still very important to know whether they’re effective or not. And in particular we need to know quite how effective the boosters are.
“We think there are good grounds for believing that the boosters will give you, under all circumstances, the protection that you need. Considerable protection.”
Stephane Bancel, chief executive of vaccine maker Moderna, was less confident in his prediction for the Omicron variant, claiming there would be a “material drop” in the effectiveness of existing jabs.
“There is no world, I think, where [the effectiveness] is the same level, ” Mr Bancel told the Financial Times. “I think it’s going to be a material drop. I just don’t know how much because we need to wait for the data. But all the scientists I’ve talked to. . . are like, ‘This is not going to be good’.”
Vaccine producers have already announced plans to modify their jabs to work against the Omicron variant. BioNTech said earlier this week that it could manufacture and distribute a new version of its jab within 100 days.