Covid-19 variant Omicron accelerates push for second-generation vaccines

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which works to spur vaccine development, expects to commit more funds to researchers focused on future Covid-19 shots. PHOTO: AFP/GETTY IMAGES

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - The pursuit of second-generation Covid-19 vaccines, including shots that could offer broader protection against a range of emerging coronavirus variants, is intensifying in the face of the Omicron threat.

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (Cepi), a group working to spur vaccine development, expects to commit more funds soon to researchers focused on future Covid-19 shots, said Dr Richard Hatchett, its chief executive officer.

Cepi, launched in 2017 with backing from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and others, provided the first funds in November to developers of potential variant-proof shots under a US$200 million (S$274 million) programme.

Whether or not the current vaccines maintain effectiveness against Omicron, it is critical to invest in a variety of approaches, including inoculations that could target multiple versions of the pathogen in a single shot, according to Dr Hatchett, a former White House adviser.

The work is also expanding beyond programmes focusing on the distinctive spike protein that the coronavirus uses to invade human cells.

"We don't know what the boundaries are for how far it can evolve and whether it can evolve out from under our vaccines, and not making investments now in vaccines to protect us against that possibility would be imprudent," he said.

"It's terrific that we have this slate of vaccines, but we should be seeking through research and development to improve them."

Scientists must answer a crucial question of just how well Covid-19 vaccines will work against the Omicron variant. Pfizer expects its shot to hold up against the strain, an executive has said, and data should be available within two to three weeks.

Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel, meanwhile, has said the surprising number of mutations in Omicron suggests that new shots would be needed to ward off infections.

Dr Hatchett said: "Even though it's possible Omicron may turn out not to be as much of a threat, maybe the next one will be. We should use this real-world experience to see how far and how fast we can do this."

Multivalent flu vaccines targeting three or four versions of the pathogen have provided protection against multiple strains circling the globe.

GlaxoSmithKline and CureVac are aiming to develop a product that addresses multiple variants in one Covid-19 vaccine, relying on mRNA technology.

Cepi has already agreed to fund Israel's MigVax to support the initial development of an oral vaccine, and the University of Saskatchewan's Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organisation (Vido) to boost its work on a so-called protein subunit vaccine.

The organisation is also backing researchers seeking to develop inoculations against different coronaviruses.

The Canadian researchers are focusing on developing a vaccine that can be used in lower- and middle-income countries that have lagged wealthy governments in accessing shots.

They are starting mid-stage studies in Africa in unvaccinated individuals and planning a booster study in Canada early next year, said Dr Volker Gerdts, director of Vido.

"This new variant is another example of the concern all of us have," he said. "The more people we have who are not vaccinated, the more breeding ground there is for these new variants to emerge."

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