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Explained: What is the new Omicron-specific vaccine approved by the UK?

The United Kingdom is the first country to approve a booster vaccine aimed at the Omicron variant of Covid-19. How will the new ‘bivalent’ vaccine work? How effective is it? How has Omicron responded to existing vaccines?

A vial of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine rests on a table at an inoculation station next to Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., on July 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

The United Kingdom became the first country to approve a booster vaccine aimed at the Omicron variant of Covid-19 on August 15, following trials involving adult subjects. Announcing the authorisation of a “next-generation Covid-19 vaccine”, biotechnology company Moderna said an improved vaccine will help protect against the Omicron variant more effectively.

On the same day, Adar Poonawalla, the CEO of Serum Institute of India (SII) which manufactures the Covishield vaccine, said he expected an Omicron-specific vaccine in India in the next six months. In an interview with NDTV, Poonawalla said that SII and Novavax, a US-based company, will work on the updated vaccine.

Stéphane Bancel, CEO of Moderna, said: “mRNA-1273.214 has consistently shown superior breadth of immune response over mRNA-1273 in clinical trials,” referring to the newer and previous versions of the Covid vaccine. “This bivalent vaccine has an important role to play in protecting people in the UK from Covid-19 as we enter the winter months,” he said.

How will the new ‘bivalent’ vaccine work?

According to the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) the newly authorised vaccine is “an updated version of the Covid-19 vaccine made by Moderna that targets two coronavirus variants (known as a ‘bivalent’ vaccine)”.

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The new vaccine is approved for use as a booster for adults only. Currently, more than 70% of people above 12 years of age have received a booster shot, as per UK government data.

“In each dose of the booster vaccine, ‘Spikevax bivalent Original/Omicron’, half of the vaccine (25 micrograms) targets the original virus strain from 2020 and the other half (25 micrograms) targets Omicron,” said the MHRA.

The MHRA said the Spikevax vaccine met the standards of safety, quality and effectiveness. During trials, the vaccine triggered a strong immune response against both strains. In an analysis, the bivalent vaccine was also found to generate a good immune response against the omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.


Vaccine for Omicron variant: How effective is it?

Danny Altmann, a professor of immunology at Imperial College London, told the Guardian that though trials showed some improvements over the previous vaccines, the Spikevax vaccine may not be hugely helpful in the fight against Covid, given the high number of mutations the virus has undergone.

“BA.5 is highly immune-evasive, so even boosted people have highly impaired protection. Even exposure to the original Omicron sequence – as used in this new, bivalent vaccine booster – only gives a rather marginal advantage to the antibody response,” he said.

However, Altmann added that getting any kind of booster shot would be helpful, and said, “We’re in a terribly vulnerable position heading into the winter, so any booster programme is better than nothing, and this bivalent booster is almost certainly an improvement over the first-generation vaccines.”


How has Omicron responded to existing vaccines?

It was previously announced by researchers from the University of Geneva that unlike the virus variants that came before it, Omicron appeared able to evade the antibodies generated by all other variants, meaning the vaccines developed before Omicron were less effective against it and that those previously infected were not protected either.

But Omicron also caused milder infections as compared to variants like the Delta, which dominated the second wave of Covid in the summer of 2021 in India, and as a result, there have been lower hospitalisations due to it despite the reduced efficiency.

First published on: 17-08-2022 at 16:25 IST
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