‘Completely new’ COVID strains possible in winter: EU drug agency

Existing vaccines and adaptive ones should protect people from serious illness and death, the EU agency says.

A healthcare worker administers the coronavirus vaccine to a woman.
Europe’s strategy for the winter is to have a broad range of updated vaccines [File: Sumaya Hisham/Reuters]

Entirely new COVID-19 variants could emerge this winter, the European Union’s drug agency has said, but existing vaccines should protect people from serious illness and death.

As the 27-nation EU prepares to roll out a booster campaign ahead of a feared wave of new coronavirus cases later this year, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) stressed that the virus is still circulating and is evolving quickly.

“There might be a completely new variant emerging that we are not able to predict today,” EMA vaccines chief Marco Cavaleri told a news conference on Friday.

Europe’s strategy is therefore to have a broad range of updated vaccines, meaning the “arsenal” of available inoculation will include adaptive vaccines tailored to respond to and anticipate the spread of new variants.

On Thursday, the EMA approved vaccines by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna that are adapted to tackle the older BA 1 subvariant of Omicron.

A Pfizer version updated for the now-dominant BA 4 and 5 strains should be authorised in mid-September, while a similar Moderna jab is also in the pipeline.

The new Omicron-adapted jabs will largely be reserved for boosters for the elderly, the vulnerable, pregnant women and healthcare workers, Cavaleri said.

Most people will instead still get the original vaccines that are designed to tackle the strain of coronavirus first identified in Wuhan, China.

“The original vaccines are still able to protect against severe COVID-19 disease and death”, even if they are less effective at preventing infection, the EMA chief said.

Among the variants the EU’s drug agency has been closely monitoring is the BA2.75, which is currently spreading in India.

Addressing the concerns that EU citizens may have regarding which vaccine or booster to take, Cavaleri said “our message is to trust the advice of your national health authority.”

“It is important to take the adaptive vaccine that is offered to you. There is no need to wait for another adaptive vaccine,” he added.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies