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Global Economy

Omicron boosters come later – or never

BioNTech's corona vaccine adapted to the omicron variant is likely to come a few weeks later than originally planned. Contrary to his earlier announcement that the vaccine could be available as early as the end of March, BioNTech boss Ugur Sahin has now declared that the delivery date will be April or May. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has to wait longer than planned for the data required for approval, said the company founder on "Bild Live".

Moderna's adapted vaccine could be launched much later. The US vaccine manufacturer Moderna is currently assuming an Omicron-specific booster in August.

Omicron wave dies down

The manufacturers' announcements come at a time when the peak of the current Omicron wave in Germany seems to have already passed. At least that is what the declining numbers of new infections and corona patients in the intensive care units indicate, as Commerzbank economists Christoph Weil, Marco Wagner and Bernd Weidensteiner explain in their current “Corona Update”.

Viewed globally, Germany is one of the countries that was hit relatively late by the omicron wave, not least because of the protective measures taken because of the delta variant. Other countries, on the other hand, are more or less "through" with Omikron. In the USA, for example, the 7-day incidence is already back to the value of mid-December, i.e. from the time before the increase in the course of the omicron wave. The Commerzbank experts emphasize that the number of corona patients in hospitals has almost halved since the peak in January.

Does it need an omicron booster?

The question of why an omicron-specific vaccine makes sense is all the more relevant: is such a booster still needed at all? In fact, even the manufacturers themselves have their doubts. That still has to be investigated, BioNTech boss Sahin keeps a low profile and refers to a possible new wave in autumn/winter: "We have to look at the vaccination epidemiology. If the wave stops, that doesn't mean that it can't start again ."

Moderna boss Stephane Bancel is convinced that a booster vaccination will be necessary. The only thing that is still unclear is which vaccine is to be used: "I don't know yet whether it will be the existing vaccine or just Omicron or a bivalent one: Omicron plus an existing vaccine, two mRNAs in one dose."

Sobering study results on omicron vaccines

The Moderna boss is putting his finger in the wound of the vaccine developer: It is questionable whether the development of an omicron-specific vaccine is still worthwhile. And not just because it could come too late for the current wave, which has already peaked in many countries.

In addition: The first results of animal experiments with mRNA vaccines against the omicron variant have turned out to be extremely sobering. They therefore work no better than the already approved corona vaccines.

Regular booster protects just as well

All studies have not yet been peer-reviewed and are only available as a preliminary publication, as reported in the journal "Nature". However, the four studies, three of them with mRNA vaccines, showed very clearly that with booster vaccinations it does not make much difference which vaccine is used: the original one or the one adapted to Omicron. An advantage for the omicron-specific vaccine was only shown for initial vaccinations.

Immunologists are hardly surprised by this: If a booster vaccination is directed against an only slightly changed target, the immune system often does not recognize the difference at all. Then vaccination with the original vaccine is just as effective.

The mechanism behind this was described as early as 1960 by the US epidemiologist Thomas Francis Jr. and is known under the term "antigenic original sin": According to this, a booster dose primarily increases the production of antibodies, which is directed against the parts of the virus to which the basic immunization was already geared.

Is it better to wait and watch?

The fact is therefore: against what is known to date to be a rather mild risk that emanates from the omicron variant, there are currently effective and tried-and-tested vaccines available that reliably protect against a severe course of the disease. In this respect, the manufacturers must now ask themselves the question of how sensible it is to put money and resources into the development of a new vaccine that does not offer any major advantages compared to the agents that have already been approved.

It might be advisable to initially observe the situation, similar to the flu vaccination, in order to be able to better assess which variant will prevail in the autumn/winter. Then the manufacturers could – if necessary – react with the speed that is now practiced and develop new variant vaccines.

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