The CEO of COVID-19 vaccine maker BioNTech has a message for those who are worried about the Omicron variant of the coronavirus: keep your cool.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal (paywall) on Tuesday, Ugur Sahin, who co-founded BioNTech and invented one of the first COVID-19 vaccines, said that while the Omicron variant could lead to more vaccinated people becoming infected, they will likely remain protected against severe illness.
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“Our message is: Don’t freak out, the plan remains the same: Speed up the administration of a third booster shot,” he told the WSJ.
Sahin said that the BioNTech mRNA jab, which he and his team of researchers invented in January 2020, and then developed together with United States drugs giant Pfizer, has already proven that it can protect against severe disease from other variants of the virus that vaccinated people have contracted.
He noted that while Omicron will likely be able to evade antibodies generated by vaccines better than Delta, due to the new variant’s higher number of mutations, it is unlikely that Omicron will be able to circumnavigate the body’s T-cell immune response to an infection.
“Our belief [that the vaccines work against Omicron] is rooted in science: If a virus achieves immune escape, it achieves it against antibodies, but there is the second level of immune response that protects from severe disease—the T-cells,” he told the WSJ.
The interview with BioNTech’s chief followed on the heels of comments made by Moderna’s CEO Stephane Bancel on Tuesday. In an interview with the Financial Times (paywall), Bancel warned that current COVID-19 jabs will be far less effective against Omicron.
“There is no world, I think, where [the effectiveness] is the same level … we had with Delta,” he said.
“I think it’s going to be a material drop. I just don’t know how much because we need to wait for the data. But all the scientists I’ve talked to … are like ‘this is not going to be good’.”
Bancel’s comments rattled European and Asian markets, sending stocks and oil prices lower.
In his interview with the WSJ, Sahin said that bringing an adjusted, Omicron-targeting jab to market would take about 100 days, but that it might not be necessary.
“We have a plan to administer a third shot to people, and we must stick to this plan and speed it up,” he told the WSJ. “Whether or not we will need extra protection by an adapted vaccine, this remains to be seen, later.”