FRANKFURT, Dec 3 (Reuters) – Germany’s BioNTech should be able to adapt its coronavirus vaccine relatively quickly in response to the Omicron variant, its CEO Ugur Sahin said, adding that despite the mutation shots should continue to protect people against severe disease.
BioNTech and Pfizer Inc together produced one of the first vaccines against COVID-19, with well over 2 billion doses already given to protect people around the world.
There are concerns that the vaccines might not work as well against the Omicron variant which emerged last month.
“This variant might be able to infect vaccinated people. We anticipate that infected people who have been vaccinated will still be protected against severe disease,” Sahin said in an interview during the Reuters Next conference on Friday.
The BioNTech CEO, whose work until the emergence of the COVID-19 coronavirus in 2020 was focused on cancer, said that the new variant had emerged sooner than he had anticipated.
“This highly mutant virus came earlier than I had expected. I had expected sometime next year and it’s already with us.”
Sahin also said that mutations in the virus meant it was more likely that annual vaccinations would be the norm, as is the case with seasonal flu, and that a new vaccine would be needed against COVID-19, although it was not yet clear when.
“I believe in principle at a certain timepoint we will need a new vaccine aginst this new variant. The question is how urgent it needs to be available,” Sahin said.
Much remains unknown about Omicron, which was first detected in southern Africa last month and has been spotted in at least two dozen countries, just as parts of Europe were already grappling with a wave of infections of the Delta variant.
“We expect this variant might be able to infect vaccinated people and this variant will most likely be able to infect people with high exposure. That is one of the things that is now getting more and more clear. It is not clear whether this variant produces more severe disease,” Sahin said.
Asked how infectious the Omicron variant might be, Ozlem Tureci, BioNTech’s chief medical officer and its co-founder said: “This is something we have to learn with the passage of time and with the passage of time i mean really in daily, weekly horizon and experts are monitoring that closely.”
Photo – EPA-EFE/RONALD WITTEK