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Oxford and AstraZeneca aim to produce Omicron-targeted version of vaccine

Calls for booster vaccinations in order to combat the rising cases brought about by winter and the recent Omicron variant have intensified, in the midst of record case rates.

Oxford and AstraZeneca have announced that they have taken ‘preliminary steps’ to produce an updated coronavirus vaccine specifically targeting the Omicron variant. Sandy Douglas, a research group leader at Oxford, shared with the Financial Times (FT) that an updated vaccine could be used to “respond to any new variant more rapidly”.

“Adenovirus-based vaccines (such as that made by Oxford AstraZeneca) could in principle be used to respond to any new variant more rapidly than some may previously have realised,” Douglas told FT. These vaccines, Douglas shared, have “really important advantages, especially where need and logistical challenges are greatest”.

A lab study last week found that AstraZeneca’s antibody cocktail Evusheld retained neutralising activity against the Omicron variant.

Vaccine makers Pfizer BioNTech and Moderna have also previously stated that they were working on Omicron-specific COVID-19 vaccines. Moderna has shared hopes to start clinical trials early next year. Global health authorities, such as the European Medicines Agency head, Emer Cooke, have warned that it is currently unknown whether a vaccine for the recently discovered strain will be needed. Cooke has also warned that it could remain unknown for some time whether the Omicron variant will necessitate new vaccine formulations.

On 21 December 2021, there were 60,508 confirmed Omicron cases, an increase of over 15,000 from the 45,145 of the previous day. The real figure for these variant cases is thought to be higher. In England, in the 24 hours before 6 pm on the 20 December, there were 129 hospitalisations related to the variant and another 14 deaths.

Researchers at Imperial College London have additionally published a study indicating a booster vaccine could provide up to 80% protection against the Omicron variant.

Imperial researcher Professor Azra Ghani spoke on the threat of Omicron: “Our results demonstrate the importance of delivering booster doses, as part of the wider public health response.”