India detected its first case of the omicron variant of Coronavirus on December 2, 2021, and since then the curve has only been steadily growing. In lieu of the looming number of omicron cases, Pfizer has announced that a vaccine that will be Omicron specific will be coming out in March. However, the question is do we really need this vaccine?
How do vaccines work against the virus?
In the body, there are proteins called antibodies that are present which are critical to fighting infections. These proteins remember an infection when there has been disease and thus in certain cases such as chickenpox, once the infection occurs, the individual does not contract the disease again.
Vaccines are curated to mimic this. The idea is that when people are vaccinated against a particular disease, it makes them immune to the condition and they do not contract it or if they do contract it, it isn’t that severe.
Vaccines are of many types, the most common ones being mRNA vaccines. These work by incorporating the genetic material into a specific formula for the vaccine. The genetic material is the one that contains information about the spike protein (the infectious part) of the virus. Thus, when a human is injected with the vaccine, the mRNA enters into the cells and instructs them to make the spike protein. Once the protein is made, the human body produces antibodies against the protein.
Thus, when later exposed to COVID, the antibodies bear the memory of the infection and the person does not get a serious attack.
Pfizer is coming out with an omicron vaccine
Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer said on January 10 that the vaccine targeting omicron would be produced by the company and was expected to be out in March. In a statement to CNBC, the CEO said “This vaccine will be ready in March. We [are] already starting manufacturing some of these quantities at risk.”
“The hope is that we will achieve something that will have way, way better protection particularly against infections, because the protection against the hospitalizations and the severe disease — it is reasonable right now, with the current vaccines as long as you are having let’s say the third dose.”
He further asserted that two doses of the vaccine had lessened the symptoms and seriousness of omicron in many but that a vaccine targeting omicron would guarantee protection against the additional variants in future.
Moderna CEO, Stephane Bancel said in an interview to CNBC “We are discussing with public health leaders around the world to decide what we think is the best strategy for a potential booster for the fall of 2022. We need to be careful to try to stay ahead of a virus and not behind the virus.”
Do we need an omicron vaccine?
Public health experts say that now is not a profitable time for an omicron vaccine but instead, if this had come out in December when the transmission was high, it would have made a big difference. This is because when the vaccine does finally come out, the virus would have already spread through the population and infected the majority of people.
Dr William Moss, executive director of the International Vaccine Access Center at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health says “It still could be valuable but I do think in many ways, it’s too late.” Dr. Shaun Truelove, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health shares the same views. “Given how quickly this [variant] is happening, [the targeted vaccine] may not matter because everybody’s going to be infected.”
Would the omicron vaccine be effective?
Pfizer CEO clarified in his statement that it isn’t yet clear if the vaccine targeting omicron is really needed or if it would be effective. Experts however think that it definitely would be beneficial to have it with new variants coming up so frequently. They agree that these booster doses will be preventive in time to come and may add additional immunity.
However, Anthony Fauci, top scientist said in a briefing “Our booster vaccine regimens work against omicron. At this point, there is no need for a variant-specific booster,” thus reiterating that a special vaccine targeting omicron was not essential.
While third and fourth booster doses of the vaccine have been rolling out, there have been studies that indicated an increase in the antibody levels following the fourth dose. Dr David Hirschwerk, infectious disease specialist and medical director at Northwell Health’s North Shore University Hospital has his doubts about whether an omicron specific vaccine would actually be beneficial or not. “I still think we need to have a more complete understanding of what our impact has been from people receiving the third dose,” Hirschwerk says.
While COVID variants keep appearing with different positivity rates, vaccines are potent protection in preventing or at least reducing the severity of the infection and only time can tell if the number of booster doses is actually a measure of how immune a person gets to the virus.