Omicron COVID-19 variant: Pfizer, BioNTech say vaccine could be reworked in 100 days to counter strain

Johnson & Johnson said it was also testing the effectiveness of its vaccine against the variant

Pfizer and BioNTech said Friday that a COVID-19 vaccine could be tweaked and produced within 100 days to counter a "vaccine-escape" variant.

The World Health Organization identified the B.1.1.529 strain found in southern Africa as a highly transmissible "variant of concern." The WHO labeled the strain with the Greek letter omicron

In an emailed statement to FOX Business, Pfizer said the vaccine-makers are "remaining vigilant" and "constantly conducting surveillance efforts focused on monitoring for emerging variants that potentially escape protection from our vaccine."

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"As always, we will continue to follow the science as we examine the best approaches to protecting people against COVID-19," Pfizer wrote. "In the event that vaccine-escape variant emerges, Pfizer and BioNTech expect to be able to develop and produce a tailor-made vaccine against that variant in approximately 100 days, subject to regulatory approval."


Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla has previously pledged the companies could develop a new vaccine within the same timeframe. 

"So far, data saw that none of the existing variant strains has escaped the protection provided by our vaccine. I repeat: none.  Not one," he said at the White House in June. "Still, we have built a process to develop, within 100 days, a new vaccine if needed.  God forbid."

In a separate statement to FOX Business, a spokesperson said that BioNTech has immediately initiated investigations on the variant. 

President Biden (L) listens as Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla make a statements in St Ives, Cornwall, England, on June 10, 2021, ahead of the three-day G7 summit.

President Biden (L) listens as Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla make a statements in St Ives, Cornwall, England, on June 10, 2021, ahead of the three-day G7 summit. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

"The variant differs significantly from previously observed variants as it has additional mutations located in the spike protein. We expect more data from the laboratory tests in two weeks at the latest. These data will provide more information about whether B.1.1.529 could be an escape variant that may require an adjustment of our vaccine if the variant spreads globally," the spokesperson wrote.

"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. 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 as part of the blueprint studies in the event of [a] needed variant-specific vaccine," the company said.

Johnson & Johnson also told FOX Business that the company was testing the effectiveness of the Johnson & Johnson Janssen vaccine against the B.1.1.529 variant.

"We are closely monitoring newly emerging COVID-19 virus strains with variations in the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein and are already testing the effectiveness of our vaccine against the new and rapidly spreading variant first detected in southern Africa," a spokesperson wrote in a Friday email. "We remain steadfast in the benefit the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine will provide to millions around the world."


To date, the delta variant remains by far the most transmissible form of COVID-19; it accounts for more than 99% of sequences shared with the world's biggest public database.

The new variant has also been detected in Israel, Botswana and Hong Kong, and some world health leaders – ignoring guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO) – made the decision on Friday to implement travel restrictions amidst the fear of its potential spread.

The coronavirus evolves as it spreads and many new variants, including those with potentially risky mutations, often die out. Scientists monitor for possible changes that could be more transmissible or deadlier, but sorting out the exact dangers takes time.

In a Friday interview on CNN's "New Day," Dr. Anthony Fauci said the U.S. was working with South African scientists to determine whether or not the variant had the ability to evade immune response. 

"Because, when you look at a mutation, it can give you a hint or a prediction that it might evade the immune response. What you need to do is you need to get that particular sequence of the virus, put it in a form in the lab where you can actually test the different antibodies. So, you can have a prediction that it might evade or you can actually prove it. Right now, we're getting the material together with our South African colleagues to get a situation where you could actually directly test it," he explained. 

"So right now you're talking about sort of like a red flag that this might be an issue but we don't know," the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) director said, addressing "New Day" co-host Brianna Keilar. "Once you test it, you'll know for sure whether or not it does or does not evade the antibodies that we make, for example against the virus through a vaccine or following convalescing after you get infected. When you get antibodies, do those antibodies protect you against this new virus? The answer is we don't know right now but we're going to find out for sure."


U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data shows that, of the total vaccine doses administered, Pfizer leads Moderna, with more than 264 million and more than 173 million vaccines administered respectively.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.