New coronavirus vaccine may eventually be needed for omicron, says BioNTech CEO

The head of BioNTech, the German coronavirus vaccine partner to pharmaceutical company Pfizer, said Friday that a new coronavirus vaccine could eventually be needed in the face of the omicron variant.

“I believe, in principle, we will at a certain timepoint need a new vaccine against this new variant. The question is how urgent this needs to be available,” CEO Ugur Sahin told a conference hosted by Reuters.

He also said the current vaccine could be adapted “relatively quickly” if needed to combat the omicron variant, but cautioned that more research was still required.

Billions of doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine have been administered globally, including in the United States.

Sahin also said that he expected the omicron variant may still infect those who have been vaccinated—known as breakthrough cases—however, he added that vaccines should continue to provide protection against severe disease.

Germany on Friday confirmed four cases of the omicron variant, with all four individuals fully vaccinated, health officials said. They had recently returned from southern Africa, where the variant was first detected. However, all were so far showing only mild symptoms, Germany’s Robert Koch Institute reported.

Meanwhile, a preliminary study published Thursday said that omicron is at least three times more likely to cause reinfection than previous variants such as beta and delta.

Earlier this week, Sahin urged people not to panic amid the emergence of the omicron variant. “Don’t freak out, the plan remains the same: Speed up the administration of a third booster shot,” Sahin said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

As the pandemic enters its third year, Sahin told Reuters on Friday that he could foresee a scenario where coronavirus vaccine shots became annual, like flu shots.

Little is definitively known about the omicron variant and he and other vaccine makers have called for more research. Like President Joe Biden and U.S. health officials, Sahin also championed booster shots as a key means of defense.

“We know that viruses mutate and this is nothing surprising,” he said. “We are confident that individuals who have been not only vaccinated but also boosted will have sufficient protection,” he added.

Coronavirus vaccine maker Moderna’s CEO Stéphane Bancel struck a different tone on Tuesday when he predicted “a material drop” in protection against the omicron variant from existing vaccines, compared with previous variants of the virus. “All the scientists I’ve talked to . . . [say], ‘This is not going to be good,’ ” he told the Financial Times.

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, which makes a popular antibody cocktail used as a treatment for COVID-19 patients, also warned this week that their therapy could be less effective against the omicron variant.

However, World Health Organization officials in Europe have previously said that there was no evidence so far to suggest that vaccines would be less effective against omicron.

The WHO’s chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan told Reuters at the same conference on Friday that while omicron appeared to be very transmissible, the right response was to be prepared.

“How worried should we be? We need to be prepared and cautious, not panic, because we’re in a different situation to a year ago,” she said.

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