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Omicron: 3 vaccine doses are not enough to stop the new COVID variant, warns BioNTech CEO

Co-founder and CEO of German biotechnology company BioNTech Ugur Sahin
Co-founder and CEO of German biotechnology company BioNTech Ugur Sahin   -   Copyright  Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP
By Pascale Davies

COVID-19 vaccines will not be enough to withstand the Omicron variant, warned the CEO of BioNTech, the German company behind the mRNA vaccine produced with Pfizer.

"We must be aware that even triple-vaccinated are likely to transmit the disease…It is obvious we are far from 95 per cent effectiveness that we obtained against the initial virus," Ugur Sahin told the French daily Le Monde in an interview published on Monday. 

Despite this, Sahin said early data from Britain and South Africa is providing us with “reassuring information”.

The latest research from South Africa, where Omicron was first reported, suggested that two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine offered 70 per cent effectiveness in reducing the risk of hospitalisation.

“There will be a loss of effectiveness against Omicron over time, it's very likely, but it's still to be measured how quickly. I will not base predictions on preliminary laboratory data but on real-life data, which is much more appropriate,” the German immunologist said.

Sahin said testing for COVID-19 is important, especially for the elderly and during winter, as are other protective measures such as mask-wearing, adding, “otherwise we will not be able to control the rapid expansion of this new variant.”

The German company is already designing a coronavirus vaccine adapted to the new variant, using Omicron’s spike protein and its 32 mutations as an antigen. Sahin announced this should be ready by March.

A new Omicron vaccine

“We remain on track with our 100-day target, which means we should be able to deliver our first suitable vaccines to Omicron in March, subject to regulatory approval,” he said.

Some researchers have voiced concern about the effect of these new vaccines as instead of boosting new immune defences, they could risk boosting inadequate ones.

Pressed on this, Sahin said: "This principle is an unproven hypothesis, personally, I don't think this is a real problem. The immune system has high adaptability and plasticity, and should be able to activate both, strengthening existing immune responses while generating new antibodies.”

“But we will obviously have to assess it.”

**The Omicron spread **

The World Health Organization said on Saturday Omicron had been detected in 89 countries  and is spreading rapidly even in places with high levels of population immunity.

The UN health agency said Omicron's “substantial growth advantage” over the Delta variant means it is likely to soon takeover Delta as the dominant variant in those countries.

It is still unclear how effective vaccines are against the new variant. 

Moderna booster 'appears protective' against Omicron

Meanwhile, Moderna, which has also produced an mRNA vaccine, said on Monday that a booster dose of its vaccine appeared to be protective against Omicron.

Moderna said that its research so far showed that a 50 microgram dose of its vaccine, which is the current amount for a booster jab, increased the level of antibodies 37-fold, compared with two doses.

It also said a full dose of 100 micrograms boosted antibody levels 83-fold, it said.

Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said that the data so far has been "reassuring" in a press statement on Monday.

The data was taken from laboratory tests from 20 people who received the booster vaccine.