Omicron variant: BioNTech will know soon if its COVID-19 vaccine works against new variant

The BioNTech pharmaceutical company says it will know in two weeks whether the novel coronavirus vaccine it developed with Pfizer will work against a new COVID-19 variant that has scientists concerned.

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The Financial Times reported that BioNTech is testing its vaccine against the B.1.1.529 variant.

According to researchers, the variant, which the WHO has named the omicron variant, was first identified in South Africa and has 32 mutations in the part of the virus that attaches to human cells. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine targets the spike protein, the part of the virus where mutations occur.

>> New COVID-19 variant: What we know about the B.1.1.529 variant; travel bans; WHO meeting

Health officials have seen the virus spreading around the world but do not know if the mutations make the B.1.1.529 variant more infectious or more deadly.

According to BioNTech, the variant “differs significantly from previously observed variants.”

“Pfizer and BioNTech have taken actions months ago to be able to adapt the mRNA vaccine within six weeks and ship initial batches within 100 days in the event of an escape variant,” the company said.

“To that end, the companies have begun clinical trials with variant-specific vaccines (alpha and delta) to collect safety and tolerability data that can be provided to regulators,” the company continued.

According to Johnson & Johnson, the company has been closely monitoring new strains and is “already testing the effectiveness of our vaccine against the new and rapidly spreading variant first detected in southern Africa.”

Moderna says it can get into human trials within 60 days, with manufacturing new doses coming in a few months if it is necessary.

The new variant is being described as “heavily mutated,” but researchers do not yet know if it spreads faster than the delta variant, if it will spread to countries more heavily vaccinated than Africa, or if it can evade current vaccines.

The World Health Organization is holding an emergency meeting on Friday to discuss the spreading variant that has appeared to emerge from Africa.

The U.S. instituted a travel ban to South Africa and seven other African nations on Friday afternoon. The British government announced that it was banning flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries effective at noon London time on Friday. Canada, France, Japan, Germany, Italy, Singapore, the Czech Republic and Israel have announced similar restrictions.