New jab to fight Omicron could be ready by March as WHO calls for more research

Pfizer says it could have a redesigned Covid-19 vaccine to specifically target the Omicron variant ready to launch by March.

Chief Executive Albert Bourla claimed a new jab is likely to be needed, adding that the company is working with its partner BioNTech to target the new strain.

It comes as Omicron continues to sweep across the world and becomes the dominant strain – but the World Health Organisation has called for more research before approving new inoculations.

Medics are working on both an Omicron-targeted vaccine and a shot that would include the previous vaccine as well as one targeting at the fast-spreading variant, Mr Bourla said.

‘I think it is the most likely scenario’, he explained to a virtual J.P. Morgan healthcare conference on Monday.

‘We’re working on higher doses. We’re working different schedules. We’re doing a lot of things right now, as we speak.’

He added that Pfizer could be ready ask regulators to approve the redesigned jab and launch it as soon as March, adding that it would not be an issue to switch to the vaccine because the company has built up so much manufacturing capacity.

Covid-19 vaccines could eventually become an annual shot for most people, Mr Bourla argued, adding that some high-risk groups might be eligible to receive the shots more frequently.

Meanwhile, Moderna’s CEO Stephane Bancel said last week that people could need another shot this autumn, since the efficacy of boosters is likely to decline over the next few months.

But a new Moderna jab is unlikely to be available in the next two months.

Regulators in the UK last week declined to approve a fourth shot because boosters are still providing ‘good protection’.

But an Omicron-driven surge in cases has forced some nations to look to another dose.

Yet across many poorer nations of the world, some people are still yet to even have a first shot.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday that more research is needed to find out if existing vaccines provide adequate protection against Omicron.

‘Further research is needed to better understand Omicron’s immune escape potential against vaccine and infection-induced immunity, and Omicron-specific responses to vaccines’, it explained.

Analysis by the UK Health Security Agency has shown that booster jabs are providing high levels of protection for older people against severe disease from Omicron, but the duration of protection against mild illness is more short-lived and drops to around 30% by about three months.

Meanwhile, on Monday, Pfizer announced three deals to broaden the use of the messenger RNA  technology (mRNA) that its jab was based on, including a pact worth as much as $1.35 billion (£958 million) with gene-editing specialist Beam Therapeutics.

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