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Three vaccine doses not enough to withstand Omicron, BioNTech CEO warns

Pfizer partner warns triple-vaccinated still likely to transmit COVID variant. "It is obvious we are far from 95% effectiveness that we obtained against the initial virus," CEO says.

Published: December 21, 2021 11:38am

Updated: December 21, 2021 2:34pm

COVID-19 vaccines will be insufficient to combat the Omicron variant, according to the head of the German company that produced the mRNA vaccine with Pfizer.

"We must be aware that even triple-vaccinated are likely to transmit the disease," BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin told the French newspaper Le Monde in an interview published this week. "It is obvious we are far from 95% effectiveness that we obtained against the initial virus."

Sahin, a German immunologist, added the vaccine will become less effective against Omicron with time but that it's too early to make any concrete forecasts.

"There will be a loss of effectiveness against Omicron over time. It's very likely, but it's still to be measured how quickly," he said. "I will not base predictions on preliminary laboratory data but on real-life data, which is much more appropriate."

Testing for COVID-19 is still important, especially for the elderly and during the winter, as is mask-wearing, according to Sahin. "Otherwise," he explained, "we will not be able to control the rapid expansion of this new variant."

Omicron accounted for 73.2% of all new COVID-19 infections in the U.S. last week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In less than a month, Omicron overtook Delta as the primary COVID-19 variant in the country.

Despite the contagiousness of Omicron, Sahin said early data from Britain and South Africa is providing “reassuring information." Two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine offered 70% effectiveness in reducing the risk of hospitalization, according to the latest research from South Africa, where Omicron was first reported.

BioNTech is currently working on a vaccine adapted to the new variant. Sahin said it should be ready in March.

"We remain on track with our 100-day target, which means we should be able to deliver our first suitable vaccines to Omicron in March, subject to regulatory approval," he said.

It's still unclear how effective vaccines are against Omicron, although Euronews reported that Moderna, which also produced an mRNA vaccine, said Monday that a booster dose of its vaccine appeared to be protective against the new variant.

The data so far has been "reassuring," Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said.

Some researchers, however, have expressed concern that these new vaccines meant to combat Omicron could potentially boost inadequate immune defenses rather than new ones.

Sahin rejected such concerns when pressed on the matter.

"This principle is an unproven hypothesis. Personally, I don't think this is a real problem," he said. "The immune system has high adaptability and plasticity, and should be able to activate both, strengthening existing immune responses while generating new antibodies."

He added that his team "will obviously have to assess it."

The issue of COVID-19 vaccines has been hotly contested. But federal and state health officials in the U.S. say vaccines and boosters can keep most patients from getting the most serious cases of COVID-19 leading to hospitalization and death, while acknowledging the vaccine protections wane over time and do allow for breakthrough infections in many Americans.

Federal officials also acknowledge that the vaccines have generated a larger than usual number of reports of adverse reactions, including suspected deaths and some heart inflammation, and that concerns have grown about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and its ties to blood clotting.

However, federal officials say those concerns aside, they believe serious vaccine reactions are still rare and in most cases protections provided by vaccines outweigh the risks.

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