New COVID-19 Variant is Identified

Moderna and Pfizer are assessing their vaccines against the Omicron variant, which was first identified in South Africa.

A new COVID-19 variant first seen in South Africa has manufacturers re-evaluating their vaccine strategy. Pfizer and Moderna are both assessing their vaccines against the new variant, called Omicron or variant B.1.1.529.

Pfizer and BioNTech are beginning to run neutralization tests on the new Omicron variant of concern and expect to have initial data in the coming weeks, according to a Pfizer spokesperson. “We will continue to follow the science as we examine the best approaches to protecting people against COVID-19. In the event that a variant emerges that escapes protection of our vaccine, Pfizer and BioNTech expect to be able to develop and produce a tailor-made vaccine against that variant in approximately 100 days, subject to regulatory approval,” the spokesperson said.

Moderna is testing three COVID-19 vaccine boosters against the new variant and data is expected in the coming weeks.

Moderna is also studying two multi-valent booster candidates in the clinic. The first one (mRNA-1273.211) includes several mutations present in the Omicron variant that were also present in the Beta variant of concern. A second multi-valent candidate (mRNA-1273.213) includes many of the mutations present in the Omicron variant that were also present in the Beta and Delta variants.

The company also plans to test a third booster mRNA-1273.529) that will be specific to this new variant.

“The mutations in the Omicron variant are concerning and for several days, we have been moving as fast as possible to execute our strategy to address this variant,” Stéphane Bancel, chief executive officer of Moderna, said in a statement.

The new variant includes mutations seen in the Delta variant that are believed to increase transmissibility and mutations seen in the previous variants that are believed to promote immune escape. The combination of mutations represents a significant potential risk to accelerate the waning of natural and vaccine-induced immunity.

News about the spread of the new variant came out over the Thanksgiving holiday. The World Health Organization has identified it as an variant of concern. Omicron was first reported in South Africa on Nov. 24, 2021. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other variants, according to WHO.

So far, the CDC has indicated that no cases of this variant have been detected in the United States.