The world's leading Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers said on Friday they are working to rapidly research and adapt their vaccines to a new and highly mutated strain of the virus.
The World Health Organization said on Friday that the new strain, called omicron, is a "worrying variant" that may pose a higher risk of reinfection than past mutations of the virus.
Pfizer and BioNTech said they are investigating omicron, first labeled B.1.1.529, and can adapt their vaccine quickly if necessary.
"We understand the concern of the experts and have immediately initiated investigations on the B.1.1.529 variant," the companies said.
Pfizer and BioNTech said they expect more data from the lab tests in two weeks at the latest.
"These data will provide more information on whether B.1.1.529 could be an escape variant that could require adjustment of our vaccine if the variant spreads globally," the companies said.
Pfizer and BioNTech said they can tailor their mRNA vaccine in six weeks and begin shipping batches within 100 days if an escape variant is identified.
Johnson & Johnson said Friday that they were already testing their omicron vaccine.
“We are closely monitoring newly emerging COVID-19 virus strains with variations in the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein and are already testing the effectiveness of our vaccine against the new, fast-spreading variant first detected in southern Africa, ”said J&J.
AstraZeneca said it is also investigating the variant. Its vaccine platform developed with the University of Oxford enables a rapid response to new mutations as they emerge, the company said.
"AstraZeneca is also conducting research in locations where the variant has been identified, namely in Botswana and Eswatini," the company said.
Moderna, in a statement Friday, said the combination of mutations in the variant "represents a significant potential risk to accelerate the decline in natural and vaccine-induced immunity."
"A booster dose of a licensed vaccine represents the only currently available strategy to boost waning immunity," the company said.
Moderna said it will test three booster candidates against omicron, even at a higher dose level. The company will also develop a specific booster dose for the variant.
"From the beginning, we have said that as we seek to defeat the pandemic, it is imperative that we be proactive as the virus evolves," Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said in a statement. "Mutations in the Omicron variant are concerning and for several days, we have been moving as quickly as possible to execute our strategy to address this variant."
The variant, which emerged in South Africa, has around 50 mutations, more than 30 of which are in the spike protein that allows the virus to bind to human cells. The spread of the new variant is still in its early stages and it is not yet clear how serious an infection would be for a vaccinated person.
Several European and Asian nations have suspended flights from southern Africa in response to the variance. The UK on Thursday suspended flights from six countries in the region, and the European Commission, the European Union's executive body, ordered all 27 member states to halt travel from southern Africa.
White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said Friday that the United States is working with South African scientists to obtain the molecular makeup of the variant so that laboratory tests can be performed. Those tests would help determine if the variant can evade the antibody protection provided by vaccines.
Fauci said the data would help determine whether the US should implement similar travel restrictions or not. The Biden administration later confirmed Friday that the United States would restrict entry to non-citizens from eight southern African nations.
The strength of Covid vaccines against infection has waned over time, although they are still very effective in preventing hospitalization and death. A study published in the journal Science this month found that the effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine in preventing infection decreased from 86% to 43% from February to October. Moderna's vaccine dropped from 89% to 58%, and J & J's vaccine dropped from 86% to 13% efficacy against infection in the same study.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention authorized booster shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines for all adults last Friday. The Pfizer booster dose was 95% effective in preventing symptomatic infections in person.