Laboratories adapting to vaccines to counter “Omicron” variant

For six days, a wind of panic has been blowing over the world. The culprit has a name, Omicron.

World: For six days, a wind of panic has been blowing over the world. The culprit has a name, Omicron. Appeared in southern Africa, spreading from Africa to the Pacific, from Canada to Australia and reached Europe, this new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic, will it respond to current vaccines? And if it escapes them – if only in part – will they have to be modified? If these questions are debated, the laboratories did not wait to react.

The four companies that produce the vaccines used in the West – Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson – have all announced that they have embarked on this race.

“We will be able to produce the vaccine in less than a hundred days,” Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, told the American channel CNBC on November 29, citing the example of the Beta and Delta variants. The next day, Stéphane Bancel, president of Moderna, told the Financial Times that it would take “several months” before the American biotech could provide, in massive quantities, a specific vaccine targeting Omicron. This period could be “six to seven months,” Dan Staner, vice-president of Moderna, told Reuters.

Where does this fear of a loss of efficacy of vaccines with respect to Omicron come from? Identified in Botswana on November 11, found in South Africa three days later, Omicron was sequenced in the following weeks. On November 24, it was reported to WHO (under the code name B.1.1.529), who declared it “of concern” two days later. This variant, in fact, has accumulated no less than 50 mutations. Among them, 32 are concentrated in a sensitive part of its structure: the Spike protein (“spicule”), this famous key which allows it to open the lock of human cells, then to infect them. Key that the main existing vaccines target.