World Health Organization experts have warned that repeating booster doses of the original Covid vaccines is not a viable strategy against emerging variants and called for new jabs that better protect against transmission.
“A vaccination strategy based on repeated booster doses of the original vaccine composition is unlikely to be appropriate or sustainable,” the WHO Technical Advisory Group on Covid-19 Vaccine Composition (TAG-Co-VAC) said in a statement published on Tuesday.
The group of experts, who are working to assess the performance of Covid-19 vaccines, called for the development of new vaccines that not only protect people who contract Covid against falling seriously ill but also better prevent people from catching the virus in the first place, in order to deal with emerging Covid variants such as Omicron.
“Covid-19 vaccines that have high impact on prevention of infection and transmission, in addition to the prevention of severe disease and death, are needed and should be developed,” the advisory group said.
This, it said, would help lower “community transmission and the need for stringent and broad-reaching public health and social measures”.
It also suggested that vaccine developers should strive to create jabs that “elicit immune responses that are broad, strong, and long-lasting in order to reduce the need for successive booster doses”.
As the virus evolves and until new vaccines are available, “the composition of current Covid-19 vaccines may need to be updated”, the group said.
According to the WHO, 331 candidate vaccines are being worked on around the world. The UN health agency has so far given its stamp of approval to versions of eight different vaccines.
A growing body of evidence indicates that the Omicron Covid variant is not only far more transmissible than previous variants, but also better at dodging some vaccine protections.
Earlier this week, Pfizer Inc chief executive Albert Bourla said a redesigned Covid-19 vaccine that specifically targets the Omicron variant is likely to be needed and his company could have one ready to launch by March.
Bourla said Pfizer and partner BioNTech SE are working on both an Omicron-targeted vaccine version as well as a shot that would include both the previous vaccine as well as one targeted at the fast-spreading variant.
“I think it is the most likely scenario,” Bourla said on Monday. “We’re working on higher doses. We’re working different schedules. We’re doing a lot of things right now, as we speak.”
The vaccine could be ready to distribute by June, Bourla added in an interview with CNBC.
Meanwhile, a “tidal wave” of Omicron infections risks infecting more than half the population of Europe in the next two months and could submerge health systems across the region, Hans Kluge, the WHO’s Europe director, warned.
In a statement on Tuesday, Kluge said the region had recorded more than 7 million new cases in the first week of 2022, double the rate of a fortnight previously, with more than 1% of the population catching Covid-19 each week in 26 countries.
“At this rate, more than 50% of the population in the region will be infected with Omicron in the next six to eight weeks,” he said – a scale of transmission he described as unprecedented.
Infectious disease epidemiologist and WHO Covid-19 technical lead, Maria Van Kerkhove, provided an update during a live Q&A session broadcast on Tuesday.
“More than 15 million cases were reported in the last seven days. That’s a record high in this pandemic. We’ve actually had to readjust the scale in the figures in the epi curve [epidemic curve],” Van Kerkhove said, adding that more than 43,000 deaths were also reported and figures were likely to be an underestimate.
“This is up from 9.5 million that were reported last week so we are seeing a sharp increase in cases being reported around the world. About half of those have been reported from Europe, about 40% of all cases reported from the Americas with a high burden of cases from the US.”
The WHO has resisted the push to roll out blanket booster programmes in the battle against new concerning variants like Omicron, saying it makes no sense as many people in poorer nations are still waiting for a first jab, dramatically increasing the chance of new, more dangerous variants emerging.
So far, more than eight billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines have been administered in at least 219 territories, according to a count by Agence France-Presse.
While more than 67% of people in high income countries have received at least one jab, fewer than 11% have in low income countries, according to UN numbers.
With Agence France-Presse