People who get a booster Pfizer Covid vaccine or who had their second jab within six months should still be highly protected against Omicron, Israeli health chiefs claim.
Without citing any data, Health minister Nitzan Horowitz said on Tuesday that there was ‘room for optimism’ that the existing vaccines will shield against severe illness from the super-strain, based on ‘initial indications’.
Hours later, a report by an Israeli news channel claimed the Pfizer jab was 90 per cent effective at preventing symptomatic infection from Omicron, only slightly less than Delta.
Channel 12 also claimed that the super mutant is just 30 per cent more infectious than the dominant Delta variant — much lower than initially feared.
For comparison, Delta was 70 per cent more infectious than the Alpha strain, which it outpaced earlier this year.
The news comes after two new cases of Omicron variant were identified in Israel, bringing the total to four. The country closed its borders to foreigners at midnight on Sunday to stem the spread of the new strain.
Mr Horowitz told local reporters on Tuesday: ‘In the coming days we will have more accurate information about the efficacy of the vaccine against Omicron.
‘But there is already room for optimism, and there are initial indications that those who are vaccinated with a vaccine still valid or with a booster, will also be protected from this variant.’
A spokesperson for the Health Ministry last night said it was not yet in possession of the data published by Channel 12.
But the comments come after the co-founder of BioNTech – which developed the Pfizer jab – said he was confident it would hold up against Omicron.
Scientists around the world are trying to get their hands on samples of the variant so they can test it against the blood of vaccinated people in lab studies to gauge how well the jabs will work against it.
Scroll down for video
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said on Tuesday that it appears people who received two jabs within the last six months or a booster are protected against Omicron
Without citing any data, Horowitz (left) told local reporters: ‘In the coming days we will have more accurate information about the efficacy of the vaccine against Omicron. Right is Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, the two gave a conference about the new variant on Nov 26
Vaccine-makers Moderna and Pfizer are already working on Covid vaccines that could tackle the Omicron strain, if it poses a problem for the current crop of vaccines, but they won’t be ready until mid-2022
Dr Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association and the first person to spot the new variant in a patient, said her patients infected with Omicron reported different and much milder symptoms, including tiredness, muscle aches, a sore head and a dry cough. But none reported the tell-tale symptoms of a loss of smell or taste or breathing difficulties
Sounding an optimistic tone, Mr Horowitz insisted that Israel would not be going into lockdown over the new variant.
‘We will not close the country and will maintain life as normal as possible… There is currently no intention to impose restrictions on life within Israel, and we will do everything possible to ensure that this continues.’
While it is unclear what data is giving the Israeli officials optimism, scientists around the world are conducting lab tests to gauge how worrying the Omicron variant is.
These involve taking a piece of the virus and exposing it to the blood of someone who has been double-vaccinated or boosted, and seeing if the virus can be neutralised.
BioNTech’s Dr Ugur Sahin admitted on Tuesday that the variant will probably cause breakthrough infections at a higher rate than Delta.
However, he claimed that once in the body, the variant will likely be neutralised by the immune systems of double-vaccinated or boosted patients.
‘Don’t freak out, the plan remains the same: Speed up the administration of a third booster shot,’ Dr Sahin told the Wall Street Journal.
Head of Moderna warns ‘it will be MONTHS’ before there is a specific jab to fight Omicron
Covid vaccine maker Moderna has warned that it will take months to develop an Omicron-specific booster jab.
Stephane Bancel, chief executive at Massachusetts-based vaccine manufacturer, said he expects the highly-evolved Covid variant to cause a ‘material drop’ in the effectiveness of existing vaccines, warning that the result was ‘not going to be good’.
He warned that it will take until summer 2022 for Moderna to develop a new vaccine and scale up manufacturing to vaccinate entire populations.
Scientists say it will take two weeks to truly work out how effective jabs are against Omicron, which has twice as many mutations on its spike protein as Delta.
The strain is expected to make current vaccines significantly weaker at preventing infections, but it’s less clear how it will impact hospitalisations and deaths.
Britain yesterday expanded its current booster rollout for all adults over 18. Even though the vaccines are expected to be much weaker against Omicron, it is hoped that topping up everyone’s immunity to very high levels will offer an extra line of defence against the incoming wave.
He explained that the Pfizer jab provides people with two levels of protection from the virus.
First, it generates Covid antibodies that helps a person’s immune system prevent the virus from infecting cells if a person is exposed.
This first layer is focused on the virus’s spike protein, which attaches itself to cells and infects them.
Omicron has more than 30 mutations on its spike protein, giving it the ability to evade the first layer of protection.
Protection from the infection is also found to wane over time, as antibodies provided by the vaccine diminish, making a fully vaccinated person more vulnerable to a breakthrough infection.
The second layer of protection remains strong against the variant, though.
After infection, a second wave of protection arrives, as immune cells in the body work to destroy infected cells.
The BioNTech chief does not believe that the variant can evade this second level of protection.
‘If a virus achieves immune escape, it achieves it against antibodies, but there is the second level of immune response that protects from severe disease – the T-cells,’ he said.
‘Even as an escape variant, the virus will hardly be able to completely evade the T-cells.’
The two new cases of Omicron in Israel are doctors who work at the Sheba Medical Center, both of which are also fully vaccinated, The Jerusalem Post reports.
One of the doctors contracted the virus while at a medical conference in London, but had tested negative before boarding a plane home to Israel.
However, a few days later he was tested again, which showed positive, and the results were sequenced to show he had the new variant.
The doctor notified health officials he had come in contact with another doctor at, a cardiologist in his 70s, who has also tested positive for the Omicron variant.
Both doctors were fully vaccinated with three shots of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine.
‘The vaccine is really crucial right now,’ Horowitz said on Tuesday. ‘Anyone who is exposed to the variant without a vaccine will put themselves at unnecessary risk.’
The news from Israel comes the same day as a report from Israel’s Channel 12 news station that said the Pfizer vaccine is 90 percent effective against Omicron, while it was 95 percent effective against the Delta variant.
However, the report notes that Pfizer is 93 percent effective eat preventing serious among those who are fully vaccinated and received a booster.
According to the report, Omicron’s ability to infect people is 1.3 time higher than what was seen in the Delta – but symptoms are less severe.
At the same time, those not vaccinated have a 2.4 times greater chance of developing serious symptoms, a significant figure.
South African doctors, who first identified the new variant, said the strain appears to cause less severe symptoms.
Medics in South Africa said the strain is causing mild symptoms — such as a headache and tiredness — than previous versions of the virus and hasn’t led to a single hospitalization or death.
On Monday, Professor Karl Lauterbach, a clinical epidemiologist who is in the running to be Germany’s next health minister, said the early reports means Omicron could be a Christmas gift and may even speed up the end of the pandemic.
He suggested that it has so many mutations — 32 on the spike protein alone, twice as many as Delta — which could mean it is optimized to infect and be less lethal, in line with how most respiratory viruses evolve.
Why is the new Omicron variant so scary?
What is so concerning about the variant?
Experts say it is the ‘worst variant they have ever seen’ and are alarmed by the number of mutations it carries.
The variant — which the World Health Organization has named Omicron — has 32 mutations on the spike protein — the most ever recorded and twice as many as the currently dominant Delta strain.
Experts fear the changes could make the vaccines 40 per cent less effective in a best-case scenario.
This is because so many of the changes on B.1.1.529 are on the virus’s spike protein.
The current crop of vaccines trigger the body to recognise the version of the spike from older versions of the virus.
The Botswana variant has around 50 mutations and more than 30 of them are on the spike protein. The current crop of vaccines trigger the body to recognize the version of the spike protein from older versions of the virus. But the mutations may make the spike protein look so different that the body’s immune system struggles to recognize it and fight it off. And three of the spike mutations (H665Y, N679K, P681H) help it enter the body’s cells more easily. Meanwhile, it is missing a membrane protein (NSP6) which was seen in earlier iterations of the virus, which experts think could make it more infectious. And it has two mutations (R203K and G204R) that have been present in all variants of concern so far and have been linked with infectiousness
But because the spike protein looks so different on the new strain, the body’s immune system may struggle to recognise it and fight it off.
It also includes mutations found on the Delta variant that allow it to spread more easily.
Experts warn they won’t know how much more infectious the virus is for at least two weeks and may not know its impact on Covid hospitalizations and deaths for up to six weeks.
What mutations does the variant have?
The Botswana variant has more than 50 mutations and more than 30 of them are on the spike protein.
It carries mutations P681H and N679K which are ‘rarely seen together’ and could make it yet more jab resistant.
These two mutations, along with H655Y, may also make it easier for the virus to sneak into the body’s cells.
And the mutation N501Y may make the strain more transmissible and was previously seen on the Kent ‘Alpha’ variant and Beta among others.
Two other mutations (R203K and G204R) could make the virus more infectious, while a mutation that is missing from this variant (NSP6) could increase its transmissibility.
It also carries mutations K417N and E484A that are similar to those on the South African ‘Beta’ variant that made it better able to dodge vaccines.
But it also has the N440K, found on Delta, and S477N, on the New York variant — which was linked with a surge of cases in the state in March — that has been linked to antibody escape.
Other mutations it has include G446S, T478K, Q493K, G496S, Q498R and Y505H, although their significance is not yet clear.
Is it a variant of concern?
The World Health Organization has classified the virus as a ‘variant of concern’, the label given to the highest-risk strains.
This means WHO experts have concluded its mutations allow it to spread faster, cause more severe illness or hamper the protection from vaccines.
Where did B.1.1.529 first emerge?
The first case was uploaded to international variant database GISAID by Hong Kong on November 23. The person carrying the new variant was traveling to the country from South Africa.
The UK was the first country to identify that the virus could be a threat and alerted other nations.
Experts believe the strain may have originated in Botswana, but continental Africa does not sequence many positive samples, so it may never be known where the variant first emerged.
Professor Francois Balloux, a geneticist at University College London, told MailOnline the virus likely emerged in a lingering infection in an immunocompromised patient, possibly someone with undiagnosed AIDS.
In patients with weakened immune systems infections can linger for months because the body is unable to fight it off. This gives the virus time to acquire mutations that allow it to get around the body’s defenses.
Will I be protected if I have a booster?
Scientists have warned the new strain could make Covid vaccines 40 per cent less effective at preventing infection – however the impact on severe illness is still unknown.
But they said emergence of the mutant variant makes it even more important to get a booster jab the minute people become eligible for one.
The vaccines trigger neutralizing antibodies, which is the best protection available against the new variant. So the more of these antibodies a person has the better, experts said.
Britain’s Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, said: ‘The booster jab was already important before we knew about this variant – but now, it could not be more important.’
When will we know more about the variant?
Data on how transmissible the new variant is and its effect on hospitalizations and deaths is still weeks away.
The UK has offered help to South Africa, where most of the cases are concentrated, to gather this information and believe they will know more about transmissibility in two to three weeks.
But it may be four to six weeks until they know more about hospitalizations and deaths.
What is the variant called?
The strain was scientifically named as B.1.1.529 on November 24, one day after it was spotted in Hong Kong.
The variants given an official name so far include Alpha, Beta, Delta and Gamma.
Experts at the World Health Organization on November 26 named the variant Omicron.