Coronavirus Update: Early data indicates that boosters, at least for BioNTech and Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, further protect against omicron

The latest batch of preliminary data indicates that COVID-19 booster shots are what is needed to further protect against the omicron variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. 

A preprint, published Tuesday by researchers in South Africa, found that the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine could be 20% less effective against omicron than other variants, based on a study of 12 people. (It did not include the plasma of people who have received a booster.)

“We assume Moderna will be in a similar ballpark in terms of impact and implied effectiveness, and J&J will be even worse,” Raymond James analyst Steven Seedhouse told investors in response to the research out of South Africa.

BioNTech SE

and Pfizer Inc.

said Wednesday that a laboratory study indicated that a booster dose of Comirnaty increased antibodies to a level that better combats infections with omicron than two doses. Neutralizing antibody titers were 25 times in those who had been boosted compared with people who had received two doses. It’s thought that higher antibody levels are likely needed to better combat the variant. 

BioNTech and Pfizer also said that people who have received only two doses of Comirnaty may still be protected against severe disease. 

There are a few caveats. The data is preliminary and was shared in a news release, not in a preprint or a peer-reviewed medical study. In addition, the companies have not yet provided any information about who they gathered the sera from, including their ages or how many individuals were included in the study.

The good news, however, is that people who are boosted or those who are fully vaccinated and previously infected with the virus “may retain some protective immunity,” Citi analysts told investors on Wednesday. The BioNTech/Pfizer data also indicates that the reduction in immunity “is less than we had feared given the heavily mutated spike of omicron.”

The emergence of the new omicron variant in recent weeks has raised concern among public health officials around the world, who have said the number and location of mutations on the spike protein is worrying. However, at this time, the emerging viewpoint is that while omicron may be more infectious, including among the vaccinated, it may not cause more severe disease.

South African authorities said earlier this week that they are seeing fewer severely ill COVID-19 patients requiring oxygen than they have reported in other waves.

The U.S. expects to have additional data from the lab sometime next week, according to public remarks made Tuesday by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical advisor.

“We’ll be able to determine whether or not antibodies induced by our vaccines lose their capability of effectiveness with omicron,” he said.

The latest COVID-19 numbers

The daily average case count in the U.S. climbed to 120,071 on Tuesday, the highest since Sept. 25 and a 27% increase from two weeks ago, according to a New York Times tracker. The daily average death toll rose 13%, to 1,298, the most since Nov. 3, and hospitalizations increased 19%, to an eight-week high of 60,747.

About 199.7 million people in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is 60% of the population. The number of people who have received a booster dose is increasing; about 47.8 million people, or 24% of the population, are now boosted.

What else you should know about COVID-19

In other Pfizer news, CEO Albert Bourla told The Wall Street Journal that the company expects to have full data for its experimental COVID-19 pill this month. He still expects an authorization before the end of the year.

Norway has limited the number of people who can attend household gatherings to 10, in order to limit the spread of the virus, according to Reuters. The Nordic country also said bars and restaurants can no longer serve alcohol past midnight.

A federal judge in Georgia on Tuesday temporarily blocked the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for federal contractors, according to multiple published reports

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