Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
There’s been great concern about the new Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. A major reason is Omicron has accumulated over 50 mutations, including about 30 in the spike protein, the part of the coronavirus that mRNA vaccines teach our immune systems to attack. All of these genetic changes raise the possibility that Omicron could cause breakthrough infections in people who’ve already received a Pfizer or Moderna mRNA vaccine.
So, what does the science show? The first data to emerge present somewhat encouraging results. While our existing mRNA vaccines still offer some protection against Omicron, there appears to be a significant decline in neutralizing antibodies against this variant in people who have received two shots of an mRNA vaccine.
However, initial results of studies conducted both in the lab and in the real world show that people who get a booster shot, or third dose of vaccine, may be better protected. Though these data are preliminary, they suggest that getting a booster will help protect people already vaccinated from breakthrough or possible severe infections with Omicron during the winter months.
Though Omicron was discovered in South Africa only last month, researchers have been working around the clock to learn more about this variant. Last week brought the first wave of scientific data on Omicron, including interesting work from a research team led by Alex Sigal, Africa Health Research Institute, Durban, South Africa .
In lab studies working with live Omicron virus, the researchers showed that this variant still relies on the ACE2 receptor to infect human lung cells. That’s really good news. It means that the therapeutic tools already developed, including vaccines, should generally remain useful for combatting this new variant.
Sigal and colleagues also tested the ability of antibodies in the plasma from 12 fully vaccinated individuals to neutralize Omicron. Six of the individuals had no history of COVID-19. The other six had been infected with the original variant in the first wave of infections in South Africa.
As expected, the samples showed very strong neutralization against the original SARS-CoV-2 variant. However, antibodies from people who’d been previously vaccinated with the two-dose Pfizer vaccine took a significant hit against Omicron, showing about a 40-fold decline in neutralizing ability.
This escape from immunity wasn’t complete. Indeed, blood samples from five individuals showed relatively good antibody levels against Omicron. All five had previously been infected with SARS-CoV-2 in addition to being vaccinated. These findings add to evidence on the value of full vaccination for protecting against reinfections in people who’ve had COVID-19 previously.
Also of great interest were the first results of the Pfizer study, which the company made available in a news release . Pfizer researchers also conducted laboratory studies to test the neutralizing ability of blood samples from 19 individuals one month after a second shot compared to 20 others one month after a booster shot.
These studies showed that the neutralizing ability of samples from those who’d received two shots had a more than 25-fold decline relative to the original virus. Together with the South Africa data, it suggests that the two-dose series may not be enough to protect against breakthrough infections with the Omicron variant.
In much more encouraging news, their studies went on to show that a booster dose of the Pfizer vaccine raised antibody levels against Omicron to a level comparable to the two-dose regimen against the original variant (as shown in the figure above). While efforts already are underway to develop an Omicron-specific COVID-19 vaccine, these findings suggest that it’s already possible to get good protection against this new variant by getting a booster shot.
Very recently, real-world data from the United Kingdom, where Omicron cases are rising rapidly, are providing additional evidence for how boosters can help. In a preprint , Andrews et. al showed the effectiveness of two shots of Pfizer mRNA vaccine trended down after four months to about 40 percent. That’s not great, but note that 40 percent is far better than zero. So, clearly there is some protection provided.
Most impressively (as shown in the figure from Andrews N, et al.) a booster substantially raised that vaccine effectiveness to about 80 percent. That’s not quite as high as for Delta, but certainly an encouraging result. Once again, these data show that boosting the immune system after a pause produces enhanced immunity against new viral variants, even though the booster was designed from the original virus. Your immune system is awfully clever. You get both quantitative and qualitative benefits.
It’s also worth noting that the Omicron variant mostly doesn’t have mutations in portions of its genome that are the targets of other aspects of vaccine-induced immunity, including T cells. These cells are part of the body’s second line of defense and are generally harder for viruses to escape. While T cells can’t prevent infection, they help protect against more severe illness and death.
It’s important to note that scientists around the world are also closely monitoring Omicron’s severity While this variant appears to be highly transmissible, and it is still early for rigorous conclusions, the initial research indicates this variant may actually produce milder illness than Delta, which is currently the dominant strain in the United States.
But there’s still a tremendous amount of research to be done that could change how we view Omicron. This research will take time and patience.
What won’t change, though, is that vaccines are the best way to protect yourself and others against COVID-19. (And these recent data provide an even-stronger reason to get a booster now if you are eligible.) Wearing a mask, especially in public indoor settings, offers good protection against the spread of all SARS-CoV-2 variants. If you’ve got symptoms or think you may have been exposed, get tested and stay home if you get a positive result. As we await more answers, it’s as important as ever to use all the tools available to keep yourself, your loved ones, and your community happy and healthy this holiday season.
 SARS-CoV-2 Omicron has extensive but incomplete escape of Pfizer BNT162b2 elicited neutralization and requires ACE2 for infection. Sandile C, et al. Sandile C, et al. medRxiv preprint. December 9, 2021.
 Pfizer and BioNTech provide update on Omicron variant. Pfizer. December 8, 2021.
 Effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines against the Omicron (B.1.1.529) variant of concern. Andrews N, et al. KHub.net preprint. December 10, 2021.
COVID-19 Research (NIH)
Sigal Lab (Africa Health Research Institute, Durban, South Africa)
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Considerable research is underway around the world to monitor the spread of new variants of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. That includes the variant B.1.351 (also known as 501Y.V2), which emerged in South Africa towards the end of 2020 [1, 2]. Public health officials in South Africa have been busy tracing the spread of this genomic variant and others across their country. And a new analysis of such data reveals that dozens of distinct coronavirus variants were already circulating in South Africa well before the appearance of B.1.351.
A study of more than 1,300 near-whole genome sequences of SARS-CoV-2, published recently in the journal Nature Medicine, shows there were in fact at least 42 SARS-CoV-2 variants spreading in South Africa within the pandemic’s first six months in that country . Among them were 16 variants that had never before been described. Most of the single-letter changes carried by these variants didn’t change the virus in important ways and didn’t rise to significant frequency. But the findings come as another critical reminder of the value of genomic surveillance to track the spread of SARS-CoV-2 to identify any potentially worrisome new variants and to inform measures to get this devastating pandemic under control.
SARS-CoV-2 was first detected in South Africa on March 5, 2020, in a traveler returning from Italy. By November 2020, despite considerable efforts to slow the spread, more than 785,000 people in South Africa were infected, accounting for about half of all reported COVID-19 cases on the African continent.
Recognizing the importance of genomic surveillance, researchers led by Houriiyah Tegally and Tulio de Oliveira, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa, wasted no time in producing 1,365 near-complete SARS-CoV-2 genomes by mid-September, near the end of the coronavirus’s first peak in the country. Those samples had been collected in hundreds of clinics over the course of the pandemic in eight of South Africa’s nine provinces, offering a broad picture of the spread and emergence of new variants across the country.
The data revealed three main variants, dubbed B.1.1.54, B.1.1.56, and C.1, that were responsible for 42 percent of all the infections in South Africa’s first wave. Of the 16 newly described variants, most carried single-letter changes that haven’t been identified in other countries.
The majority of changes were what scientists refer to as “synonymous,” meaning that they don’t change the structure or function of any of the virus’s essential proteins. The exception is the newly identified C.1, which includes 16 single-letter changes compared to the original sequence from Wuhan, China. One of those 16 changes swaps a single amino acid for another on SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein. That’s notable because the spike protein is a key target of antibodies and also is essential to the virus’s ability to infect human cells.
In fact, four of the most prevalent variants in South Africa all carry this same mutation. The researchers also saw three other changes that would alter the spike protein in different ways, although the significance of these for viral spread and our efforts to stop it isn’t yet clear.
Importantly, the data show that the bulk of introductions to South Africa happened early on, before lockdown and travel restrictions were implemented in late March. Subsequently, much of the spread within South Africa stemmed from hospital outbreaks. For example, an outbreak of the C.1 variant in the North West Province in April ultimately led this variant to become the most geographically widespread in South Africa by the end of August. Meanwhile, an earlier identified South African-specific variant, B.1.106, first identified in April, vanished altogether after outbreaks were controlled in KwaZulu-Natal Province, where the researchers reside.
Genomic surveillance has remarkable power for understanding the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and tracking the dynamics of its transmission. Tegally and de Oliveira’s team notes that this type of intensive genomic surveillance now can be used on a large scale across Africa and around the world to identify new variants of SARS-CoV-2 and to develop timely measures to control the spread of the virus. They’re now working with the African CDC to expand genomic surveillance across Africa .
Such genomic surveillance was crucial in the subsequent identification of the B.1.351 variant in South Africa that we’ve been hearing so much about, with its potential to evade our current treatments and vaccines. By picking up on such concerning mutations early through genomic surveillance and understanding how the virus is spreading over time and space, the hope is we’ll be better informed and more adept in our efforts to get this pandemic under control.
 Emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
 Emergence and rapid spread of a new severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) lineage with multiple spike mutations in South Africa. Tegally H, Wilkinson E, Giovanetti M, Iranzadeh A, Bhiman J, Williamson C, de Oliveira T, et al. medRxiv 2020 Dec 22.
 Sixteen novel lineages of SARS-CoV-2 in South Africa. Tegally H, Wilkinson E, Lessells RJ, Giandhari J, Pillay S, Msomi N, Mlisana K, Bhiman JN, von Gottberg A, Walaza S, Fonseca V, Allam M, Ismail A, Glass AJ, Engelbrecht S, Van Zyl G, Preiser W, Williamson C, Petruccione F, Sigal A, Gazy I, Hardie D, Hsiao NY, Martin D, York D, Goedhals D, San EJ, Giovanetti M, Lourenço J, Alcantara LCJ, de Oliveira T. Nat Med. 2021 Feb 2.
 Accelerating genomics-based surveillance for COVID-19 response in Africa. Tessema SK, Inzaule SC, Christoffels A, Kebede Y, de Oliveira T, Ouma AEO, Happi CT, Nkengasong JN.Lancet Microbe. 2020 Aug 18.
COVID-19 Research (NIH)
Houriiyah Tegally (University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa)
Tulio de Oliveira (University of KwaZulu-Natal)