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Omicron has all but wiped out the more deadly Delta strain—but that’s not necessarily a good thing

March 31, 2022, 3:39 PM UTC

Now accounting for 99.5% of all variants worldwide, Omicron has all but wiped out competing forms of the COVID-19 virus—but this poses a continued risk to more than a third of the world’s population. 

This has major implications for companies like BioNTech, which developed the very first COVID vaccine.

Unlike the more lethal Delta strain, the highly transmissible Omicron version of the coronavirus that emerged in November last year can more easily evade the current portfolio of vaccines approved by public health authorities. 

While this poses a risk for at least the 36% of the world’s population that has not been vaccinated at all, potentially far more are at risk.

According to BioNTech chief medical officer Özlem Türeci, the effect of current booster shots starts to wane after the first few months. 

“We believe that Omicron-adapted vaccines are required to prolong duration of protection, reduce transmission of disease, improve breadth of response and protection against emerging variants of concern,” she told investors on Wednesday. 

The German mRNA specialist that partnered with U.S. drugmaker Pfizer is now in the process of testing a vaccine adapted to the spike protein specific to the Omicron variant, which could replace the bulk of its vaccine shipments going forward depending on government demand.

That’s because its original Comirnaty vaccine will be increasingly less effective going forward as the original strain has all but died out, obviating the need for a so-called bivalent approach in which a multidose inoculation targets more than two variants.

Courtesy of BioNTech

“With Omicron being now almost 99.5% of all variants worldwide, there is currently no clear need for a combined vaccine,” said BioNTech CEO Uğur Şahin, citing globally available sequencing data. 

He added it could even be a disadvantage to come up with a vaccine that targets different variants, “because we would dilute the effect” of one that solely trains the body to attack Omicron. 

Having already started in early December, Türeci said her team was hard at work to develop an Omicron-adapted vaccine. 

“We’re conducting clinical trials with this vaccine in support of a potential regulatory submission and expect to have the first data from these trials in April,” she said.

Until an Omicron-adapted vaccine is both approved and available, BioNTech said a further booster shot could be beneficial in increasing immune response in high-risk groups. 

As a result, it requested the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approve a fourth dose for older adults on an emergency basis, an approval granted on Tuesday.

To combat the threat of new strains, BioNTech is collaborating with U.K. artificial intelligence company InstaDeep to develop an early warning system for new variants of concern.

The approach is based on a new computational method that analyzes globally available sequencing data and predicts high-risk mutations in real time. 

The Mainz-based biotech startup, founded by the Turkish immigrant pair Şahin and Türeci, may have almost singlehandedly saved Germany’s economy last year with its overnight success. 

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