Omicron variant: Pfizer running ‘neutralization tests’ with its COVID-19 vaccine

The emergence of the omicron variant has renewed fears of the novel coronavirus developing mutations that would allow it to evade existing vaccines, but the companies Pfizer and BioNTech are currently running tests in response to the rapidly spreading variant with data available in the coming weeks.

"Pfizer and BioNTech are remaining vigilant and constantly conducting surveillance efforts focused on monitoring for emerging variants that potentially escape protection from our vaccine," a spokesperson for Pfizer told FOX Television Stations. "We are beginning to run neutralization tests on the new Omicron variant of concern and expect to have initial data in the coming weeks."

BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin told news organization Reuters in a conference on Friday that a tweaked vaccine likely won’t be available in "a timely fashion" if a new variant develops quickly, as the omicron variant has.

"If we develop a vaccine, a new vaccine, we most likely will not be able to prevent the first wave of infections with a new vaccine, because it will take about 100 days to develop a new and distribute a new vaccine or start to distribute a new vaccine," Sahin told Reuters. 

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Sahin’s comments echo others made by top officials from COVID-19 vaccine makers earlier this week who said it will take 100 days or less to develop and ship a shot that specifically targets the omicron variant, if needed, amid heightened concern over its spread.

Any omicron-specific vaccine probably could not begin to be produced for another two or three months, Dr. Paul Burton, chief medical officer for Moderna, told the Associated Press on Monday.

Additionally, Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said a higher 100-microgram dose of the company’s booster shot could be ready much sooner.

"The higher dose could be done right away but it will be months before the omicron-specific variant is ready to ship in massive quantities," Bancel told CNBC’s "Squawk Box." 

Pfizer continued in its statement: "As always, we will continue to follow the science as we examine the best approaches to protecting people against COVID-19. In the event that a variant emerges that escapes protection of our vaccine, Pfizer and BioNTech expect to be able to develop and produce a tailor-made vaccine against that variant in approximately 100 days, subject to regulatory approval."

In the meantime, Sahin told Reuters those who are currently vaccinated with a shot and a booster should have "sufficient protection."

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While it’s currently not clear if the new variant causes severe COVID-19, Sahin added, "We anticipate that infected people who have been vaccinated will still be protected against severe disease."

Burton also added that in the interim, getting boosters remains a "very important initial line of defense."

Germany's BioNTech and Pfizer partnered to produce one of the first vaccines against COVID-19 and were first to have a booster shot authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 

The World Health Organization warned that the global risk from the omicron variant is "very high" based on the early evidence, saying the mutated coronavirus could lead to surges with "severe consequences." 

President Joe Biden called the new coronavirus variant omicron a cause for concern but "not a cause for panic" and said he was not considering any widespread lockdown. He urged Americans to get fully vaccinated, including booster shots, and return to face masks indoors in public settings to slow any spread.

On Thursday, the Biden administration announced that all travelers to the U.S. must provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test within one day of boarding their flights, regardless of nationality or vaccination status.

The tightening of testing for those entering the country will begin next week and is down from the current three days for those who have been vaccinated.

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Separately, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) broadened its recommendation for COVID-19 booster shots to include all adults 18 and older because of the new variant. The agency had previously approved boosters for all adults, but only recommended them for those 50 years and older or living in long-term care settings.

"Everyone ages 18 and older should get a booster shot either when they are six months after their initial Pfizer or Moderna series or two months after their initial J&J vaccine," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a statement.

WHO said there are "considerable uncertainties" about the omicron variant. But it said preliminary evidence raises the possibility that the variant has mutations that could help it both evade an immune-system response and boost its ability to spread from one person to another.

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"Depending on these characteristics, there could be future surges of COVID-19, which could have severe consequences, depending on a number of factors, including where surges may take place," it added. "The overall global risk... is assessed as very high."

The WHO stressed that while scientists are hunting evidence to better understand this variant, countries should accelerate vaccinations as quickly as possible.

The Associated Press, Catherine Park and Kelly Hayes contributed to this report.