As 57 Countries Report Omicron Cases, Pfizer Says its Boosters Offer Protection – But WHO Cautions More Research is Needed
Teachers in Kenya getting vaccinated. Will everyone now need a booster shot?

Shortly after the release of research showing reduced efficacy of the two-jab Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine against Omicron infection, but better protection with boosters, the World Health Organization (WHO) cautioned that more research is still needed to draw definite conclusions about vaccine strategies in the face of the new variant wave. 

A South African study released late Tuesday showed that people double-vaccinated with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine had significantly reduced protection against the Omicron variant, now reported in 57 countries.

On Wednesday morning, Pfizer reported that a third booster of its vaccine would provide significant protection against Omicron, according to a laboratory study.

“Sera obtained from vaccinees one month after receiving the booster vaccination neutralized the Omicron variant to levels that are comparable to those observed for the wild-type SARS-CoV-2 spike protein after two doses,” according to a statement from Pfizer.

While double-vaccinated people had a “more than a 25-fold reduction in neutralization titers” against Omicron, they would likely still still be protected against severe disease thanks to their T cells which are not affected by the Omicron mutations, according to Pfizer.

“Although two doses of the vaccine may still offer protection against severe disease caused by the Omicron strain, it’s clear from these preliminary data that protection is improved with a third dose of our vaccine,” added Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla.

Late Wednesday, South Africa’s medicine regulatory authority approved boosters for all adults over 18 who had been vaccinated at least six months ago, and for all immunocompromised people over the age of 12 vaccinated at least 28 days ago. No other southern African countries have authorised boosters yet, although the region was the first to detect Omicron.

WHO says Pfizer results are preliminary & top priority remains jabs for the unvaccinated

Dr Kate O’Brien, WHO Director of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals,

In a press briefing later Wednesday afternoon, Dr Kate O’Brien, WHO Director of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals, said that the WHO was “very much interested” in the Pfizer findings, but these were preliminary and only concerned one vaccine. 

“We are still very much in a Delta pandemic and so vaccinating all people, especially those at highest risk of disease, with our existing vaccines, continues to be the top priority,” O’Brien told the global body’s COVID-19 briefing on Wednesday.

WHO has spoken out repeatedly against mass administration of booster shots – saying that available vaccine supplies should instead be focused on getting jabs to less-developed countries, mostly in Africa, where less than 40% of  people have yet to get jabs.

Meanwhile, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called on all countries to share information about Omicron speedily, as what was happening in South Africa might not be the same as the rest of the world.

“Cases in South Africa are increasing quickly,” Dr Tedros told the media briefing. “However Omicron was detected when transmission of Delta was very low so it had little competition. It will therefore be important to monitor carefully what happens around the world to understand whether Omicron can outcompete Delta.”

WHO Lead on COVID-19, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, added that the South African population was young and had a high level of exposure to COVID-19 from previous outbreaks, which might lessen Omicron’s impact.

WHO Chief Scientist Dr Soumya Swaninathan also warned that it is too early to come to any conclusions about the efficacy of vaccines against Omicron as the only available studies showed a “wide variation” and samples were small.

New South African findings also show reduced efficacy from two-shot vaccines against Omicron

On Tuesday night, Alex Sigal of the Africa Health Research Institute in South Africa released research on 12 double-vaccinated people, which found a 41-fold reduction in neutralising Omicron. Six of the 12 subjects had also previously been infected by SARS-COV2 and five of these showed a high level of protection against Omicron.

However, the research showed that the variant still used the ACE receptor to bind to the spike protein.

But Swaminathan stressed that “[these studies] are only looking at one element, just the neutralising antibodies”.

“It’s premature to conclude that this reduction in neutralising activity would result in a significant reduction in vaccine effectiveness. The immune system is much more complex, with the T cells and the memory B cells. What we really need now is a coordinated research effort and not jumping to conclusions, study by study,” she added.

The WHO expects information about how infectious Omicron is on Friday, and said that a number of high-level scientific committees were examining Omicron.

WHO Chief Scientist Dr Soumya Swaninathan

WHO expert bodies are examining Omicron

“The technical advisory group for virus evolution is assessing Omicron’s effect on transmission, disease severity, vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics and the effectiveness of public health and social measures,” said Dr Tedros.

The joint advisory group on COVID-19 therapeutics is analysing the possible effects of Omicron on treatment of hospitalised patients. 

The Research and Development Blueprint for Epidemics is convening researchers to identify knowledge gaps, and the studies needed urgently to answer the most pressing questions. And the technical advisory group for COVID-19 vaccine composition is assessing impacts of Omicron on current vaccines, said Dr Tedros.

Describing the idea that viruses became less virulent as they evolved as “something of an urban myth”, the WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Health Emergencies, Dr Mike Ryan, said that even if this was the case with Omicron, if it generated more cases this would put pressure on health systems and more people die. 

“That’s what we can avoid. We cannot do anything about maybe the inherent qualities of a virus but we can prevent our systems coming under pressure,” stressed Ryan – through vaccination, masks and reducing social contact. 

Lift the travel bans – end ‘travel apartheid’

Dr Tedros thanked Switzerland and France for lifting their travel bans on southern Africa and called on other countries to do the same.

However, on Monday the UK added Nigeria to its red list, while many countries are only likely to reassess the bans after a month – way too late to salvage the Christmas tourist season in southern Africa.

The moves by developed countries to shut out travelers from southern Africa, or all of Africa in some cases, were last week denounced as “travel apartheid” by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

Guterres said it was “unacceptable to have one of the most vulnerable parts of the world’s economy condemned to a lockout when they were the ones who  revealed the existence of a new variant.”

His comments were echoed this week by Nigeria’s Ambassador to the UK, Sarafa Tunji Isola, who told the BBC that “the reaction in Nigeria is that of travel apartheid.”

“Because Nigeria is actually aligned with the position of the UN secretary general that the travel ban is apartheid, in the sense that we’re not dealing with an endemic situation, we are dealing with a pandemic situation, and what is expected is a global approach, not selective,” Isola said.

Image Credits: Wish FM Radio.

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