Will vaccines work against Omicron?

By Indira Laisram
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A representation of the Omicron spike (mutation positions shown as coloured balls). Image by Dr Michael Kuiper, biomolecular modeller, CSIRO's Data61.

Of the 647 Omicron genome sequences as of yesterday in the world’s largest database ‘GISAID’, Australia has 16 and India has 4. The latest coronavirus variant of concern has been reported from 41 countries and many more are joining this list.

Prof S S Vasan, COVID-19 project leader at Australia’s science agency CSIRO, who has been evaluating vaccines and therapies, and tracking coronavirus evolution, says, “As this variant of concern currently has a reproduction number above the threshold of 1 required to spread (preliminary reports place it between 1.3 and 1.6), and this variant contains several mutations in regions where antibody binding is known to occur, there could be potential for this virus to evade existing immunity provided by current vaccines.”

The first case of Omicron, also known as B.1.1.529, was detected in southern Africa. While the WHO raised the alarm based largely on the variant’s many worrying genetic changes, Prof Vasan says, “We need to study these changes in combination, not just rely on the fact that many have occurred previously, in individual variants.”

The key question now is predicting the variant’s impact on the efficacy of vaccines and therapeutics, so we need to “test them experimentally and this will take us to early 2022 to get the full picture”.

Prof Vasan says it will require a global effort. CSIRO has been collaborating with its Australian, South African and other partners to combat this virus as it evolves.

“We are continuing to support global ‘vaccine matching’ efforts, which involves tweaking the vaccines so they protect against a new variant of concern. In the meantime, those who are double or triple vaccinated can still expect some level of protection, so it is important to achieve high vaccination coverage and follow sensible precautions such as masks, social distancing, and meeting virtually or outdoors rather than in confined spaces,” he says.

Prof S S Vasan

Effectiveness of vaccines against Omicron

According to Dr Rob Grenfell, CSIRO Special Health Advisor, “At this stage, we expect the vaccines will still prevent serious illness from Omicron. Studies are kicking off to determine if antibodies generated by vaccination or infection neutralise this virus, and we should see some results in the next week.

“Scientists have created several platforms for vaccines against coronaviruses during this pandemic that are very effective and safe, and these can be modified to adjust for variants. Already, Oxford (AstraZeneca), Pfizer and Moderna are looking at ways to modify their vaccines if necessary.”

Latest numbers on GISAID

“Australian authorities are reviewing booster shot timeframes to see whether they should be brought forward to better protect against Omicron. Until that review is finished, you should get your booster shot as soon as you’re eligible, which is currently six months after your second vaccine dose.”

Prof Vasan’s project team at CSIRO is supporting two leading second-generation vaccines, DNA vaccine from Inovio Pharmaceuticals, and India’s warm vaccine Mynvax, in their preclinical development including efficacy against Omicron. They are also working closely with the Doherty Institute to evaluate vaccinated people’s responses against Omicron.


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