Pfizer says COVID-19 vaccine booster shot ramps up protection against Omicron

Pharma company Pfizer said on Wednesday that studies of its COVID-19 vaccine indicate that a booster dose offers protection against the Omicron coronavirus variant.

The company said researchers found that the level of neutralizing antibodies increased 25-fold in people who’d received a third dose of the vaccine, which it developed with BioNTech.

Pfizer said the extra dose neutralizes the Omicron variant at a similar rate that the first two doses do against other coronavirus mutations, like Delta.

The research indicates that the initial two doses of the Pfizer vaccine alone “may not be sufficient” to ward off the Omicron variant.

“Although two doses of the vaccine may still offer protection against severe disease caused by the Omicron strain, it’s clear from these preliminary data that protection is improved with the third dose of our vaccine,” Pfizer Chairman and CEO Albert Bourla said in a statement.

“Ensuring as many people as possible are fully vaccinated with the first two-dose series and a booster remains the best course of action to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

Pfizer produced the first coronavirus vaccine to be authorized in the United States about a year ago. File Photo by Debbie Hill/UPI

The companies said the new research may be critical as the world enters its second winter season of the COVID-19 era.

“Broad vaccination and booster campaigns around the world could help us to better protect people everywhere and to get through the winter season,” Dr. Ugur Sahin, BioNTech CEO and co-founder, said in a statement.

“We continue to work on an adapted vaccine which, we believe, will help to induce a high level of protection against Omicron-induced COVID-19 disease as well as a prolonged protection compared to the current vaccine.”

A separate study conducted by researchers in South Africa found that two doses of the current formulation of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine produces up to three-fold fewer effective antibodies against the Omicron variant than earlier strains of the virus.

The study, released Tuesday, has not yet been peer-reviewed.

All of the currently available vaccines — from Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech — target the so-called “spike” protein of the virus. However, the Omicron variant contains 32 genetic mutations to the spike protein.

The findings from South Africa suggest that these mutations allow the variant to “escape” many of the antibodies generated by the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, researchers said.

“The clinical implications of these important laboratory data need to be determined — it is likely that lesser vaccine-induced protection against infection and disease would be the result,” Willem Hanekom, executive director of the Africa Health Research Institute, where the study was conducted, said in a statement.

Antibodies are proteins produced by the immune system to fight off viruses, and the COVID-19 vaccines are designed to boost their production.

“Importantly, most vaccinologists agree that the current vaccines will still protect against severe disease and death in the face of Omicron infection. It is therefore critical that everyone should be vaccinated,” Hanekom said.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said this week that Omicron has been found in more than a dozen states so far.

Pfizer and BioNTech said the vaccine studies on Omicron are preliminary and they still must collect more lab data and evaluate real-world effectiveness.

If needed, the first Omicron-based vaccines could be produced and delivered within a short period of time, pending regulatory approval, the companies said.

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