The founder of COVID-19 vaccine manufacturer BioNTech said the new Omicron CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus variant is not likely to cause severe illness in vaccinated people, echoing statements made by doctors in Israel as well as Oxford University.
Since the World Health Organization (WHO) designated Omicron a “variant of concern” last week, a number of countries have imposed restrictions on southern Africa and suggested lockdowns could be on the table soon. Panic over the variant also caused the stock market to experience declines in recent days, with the Dow Jones dropping more than 500 points by noon on Tuesday.
But BioNTech co-founder Ugur Sahin told the Wall Street Journal that people shouldn’t panic.
“Our message is: Don’t freak out, the plan remains the same: Speed up the administration of a third booster shot,” Sahin, whose firm partnered with Pfizer to create one of the most common vaccines in the world, said on Tuesday.
Based on what researchers know about the virus, Sahin said he assumed that vaccinated individuals would be able to stave off serious disease from the Omicron variant, which WHO and other researchers described as highly mutated. He didn’t mention natural immunity afforded by a previous COVID-19 infection.
The Delta COVID-19 variant, which federal health officials say is the dominant strain the United States, appeared to be more infectious than the Alpha strain, but most people experience mild symptoms, Sahin remarked.
“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.”
According to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, the United States has seen an approximately 99 percent COVID-19 survival rate to date.
However, despite his rosy outlook, Sahin also said that some countries like Germany that are experiencing a surge of COVID-19 cases may need to impose additional restrictions. Vaccine passports and mandates have proven to be a divisive topic in Europe, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets on a weekly basis in major cities to demonstrate against them.
“Certain measures can push down infection figures relatively quickly … in the current situation I am in favor of effective measures,” he said, without elaborating.
The BioNTech executive’s remarks come as Oxford University, which helped create the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 shot, issued a similar statement.
“Despite the appearance of new variants over the past year, vaccines have continued to provide very high levels of protection against severe disease and there is no evidence so far that Omicron is any different,” Oxford said in a statement Tuesday. “However, we have the necessary tools and processes in place for rapid development of an updated COVID-19 vaccine if it should be necessary.”