As countries close their borders to travelers from southern Africa over fears of the spread of a new strain of virus that causes Covid-19, vaccine makers have raced to get their hands on it. test to see if their product still works.
The World Health Organization officially issued a warning on Thursday that variant B.1.1.529 – now known as “Omicron” – has a troubling array of mutations. But Moderna says its team has been working “non-stop” over the past few days, while researchers at BioNTech are using a fake virus – designed to look like the new strain – for the purpose of discovery. see if their vaccine is less effective than stress within the next two weeks.
Johnson & Johnson said it was already testing a vaccine against the virus, while Oxford University scientists were expecting imminent transmission of the virus, according to a person familiar with the matter. AstraZeneca said it carried out studies in Botswana and Eswatini, where this variant is present, to assess how well their vaccine might fight the new variant.
Vaccine manufacturers are reliving a familiar game. They ran the same lab tests as the Alpha, Beta and Delta strains appeared. Surname New variations are expected and prepared by running clinical trials to test new versions. AstraZeneca is set to provide results on its first modified vaccine, for the Beta variant, and Pfizer and BioNTech are conducting trials of the refined vaccine for Alpha and Delta Variations.
But this is the first time a variant has had so many mutations in one important place: the “mutant” protein it uses to infect human cells. Francois Balloux, a professor at the UCL Genetics Institute, says the changes mean that the neutralizing antibodies that protect people who have been vaccinated or previously infected are less likely to recognize the variant.
Jo Walton, an analyst at Credit Suisse, said all currently approved vaccines focus on the mutant protein, so they could all prove to be slightly less protective.
But mRNA vaccines are more adaptable because they simply deliver the genetic code in tiny bubbles of fat, then use the body as a factory to make proteins the immune system needs to recognize. . These codes can be quickly swapped and without the time-consuming process of culturing cells in tanks that are required for other vaccines.
“The mRNA should be the easiest: you can take a new tape and put it in and so if you need to, you should be able to produce a new vaccine,” says Walton.
Shares of vaccine mRNA makers jumped on Friday: Moderna was up 21%, BioNTech was up 17% and Pfizer was up 7%. CureVac is up 12.5% even though there is still no approved vaccine. The German company says it can test its vaccine candidate with partner GSK within weeks.
BioNTech said it and Pfizer acted “several months ago” to adapt the mRNA vaccine they developed together within six weeks and deliver initial batches within 100 days, in the event of a “variable” can run away”.
Pfizer recently said it had cut the time from 110 days from starting the process to putting the vaccine in a vial from 110 days to 31.
While adenovirus vector vaccines like the Oxford/AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson shots are also fairly easy to adapt, they are a lot harder to scale. This was reflected in the difficulties AstraZeneca faced in production earlier this year, said Michael Leuchten, an analyst with UBS.
“Adenovirus vectors don’t like to scale. They take a personal offense to that,” he said.
A vaccine that could be beneficial is currently being considered by regulators. Valneva’s entire inactivated vaccine teaches the immune system how to recognize other important proteins as well as spikes. Shares of the French vaccine maker rose 8.5% on Friday on hopes that it could better tackle a problematic variant.
If the world needs a vaccine suitable for this new variant or another in the future, governments, regulators and WHO will have to decide when to make the switch.
Clive Dix, former interim leader of the UK government’s vaccine task force, said it was important to closely monitor the severity of the disease for those vaccinated.
“Unfortunately, the data won’t be generated in a lab, it will be real-world data in humans,” he said. “If, when they analyze people who get vaccinated in South Africa, where it’s reeling, they find they’re getting very sick, that’s an alarm bell to actually start producing some kind of vaccine — and that will happen soon.”
Richard Hatchett, executive director of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, said the new variant underscores the need for more Covid vaccine research and development. “Of course, it is important that we continue to immunize people globally. . . but we also have to focus our efforts and resources on improving existing Covid-19 vaccines to make them more effective against multiple variants,” he said.
If vaccines become less effective, Covid drugs become even more important.
Rafael Bayarri Olmos, a researcher and immunologist at Copenhagen University Hospital’s Laboratory of Molecular Medicine, says this variant most likely threatens the effectiveness of antibody treatments.
The immune protection from vaccines might work against the entire spike protein, he said, but antibody treatments focus entirely on the receptor-binding region where the virus binds. with cells, he said. Strain B.1.1.529 has 15 mutations in this area.
“The variant may reduce the effectiveness of the vaccine but not completely weaken it,” Olmos said. But it could make some antibody treatments “completely non-functional”.
Initial analysis by the Bloom Lab at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute in Seattle predicts that antibody treatments from AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline are more likely to tackle the new strain than previous generations. from Regeneron and Eli Lilly.
AstraZeneca says it is testing the treatment but hopes it will work because it consists of two antibodies that work in different ways.
Sajid Javid, the UK’s health minister, said on Friday that the new variant could have an impact on the effectiveness of “one of the main treatments”: Ronapreve, made by Regeneron.
The New York-based biotech company says it is testing current antibodies and next-generation candidates, a combination of which is already in clinical trials.
“Good news” is anti-virus guys used to treat Covid work in a different way than vaccines, so they are less likely to be affected by mutations in the mutated protein, Walton said.
Kin-Chow Chang, a professor at the University of Nottingham who studies antiviral drugs for respiratory viruses, said the new variant highlights the need for this type of treatment. He is working on one of the “second lines of defense”.
Pfizer and Merck recently reported positive late-stage trial results of their antiviral drug, and the trial results subsequently received approval in the UK. Merck on Friday modified down Its efficacy data in a full outcome analysis, showed that treatment with it reduced the risk of hospitalization and death by 30%, not 50%.
But pharmaceutical companies have not scaled up antiviral production to the extent that might be required if the new variant is indeed successful. Merck expects to have 10 million courses available by the end of the year, with Pfizer expected to offer just 180,000. Companies are sharing their technology with generic manufacturers, but it will also take time for them to adapt.
“It’s a good insurance policy, but I don’t think they’ll be on a large enough scale,” said UBS’s Leuchten.
Chang said drug makers are probably “quite calm” about their antiviral drugs’ resistance to new variants – but are still eager to experiment.
“The first to have data that shows it works on the latest variant will get a lot of market recognition,” he said.
Additional reporting by Oliver Barnes in London