AstraZeneca and Oxford University have started developing a version of their coronavirus shot that targets omicron, as researchers study the efficacy of existing vaccines against the latest variant.
“Together with Oxford University, we have taken preliminary steps in producing an Omicron variant vaccine, in case it is needed and will be informed by emerging data,” the AstraZeneca pharmaceutical company based in England said in an email.
The World Health Organization says omicron is spreading faster than the delta variant, though the extent to which it causes severe illness remains unclear. U.S. biotech firm Moderna and pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, along with its German partner BioNTech, have said they are tailoring their shots and working to understand the level of protection they provide.
The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, widely used in European countries and others such as Canada and India, is not approved in the United States.
“Like with many previous variants of concern … we have taken preliminary steps in producing an updated vaccine in case it is needed,” Sandy Douglas, who leads a vaccine manufacturing research group at Oxford, told the Financial Times earlier on Tuesday.
He said adenovirus-based vaccines, such as the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot, “could in principle be used to respond to any new variant more rapidly than some may previously have realized.”
The head of the European medicines regulator, Emer Cooke, has said it would take time to reach a consensus on the need for variant-specific vaccines. She added that AstraZeneca had not applied so far for its shot to be used as a booster in the European Union, which along with Britain has largely used Pfizer and Moderna’s mRNA vaccines as boosters. The United States is also using Pfizer and Moderna along with the vaccine from Johnson & Johnson.
Global health officials, who say vaccines remain the best tool to combat the virus, have urged people to get boosters if they can, while the spread of omicron has highlighted inequality in access to vaccines worldwide.
Moderna said earlier this week that a booster dose of its vaccine significantly raised antibody levels against the omicron variant, according to preliminary data, though it did not have the clinical data to speak to its vaccine’s protection against hospitalization or death.
Douglas and his team have published a preprint paper, which has not yet undergone a peer review, outlining the feasibility of producing a vaccine at large scale after a new virus is identified, which they said could enable making millions of doses within 100 days. The Oxford team said the research shows the potential “speed and volume of production of adenovirus-vectored vaccines against new virus variants or other future pandemics.”