British expert: Omicron variant unlikely to seriously affect the vaccinated

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Nov. 27 (UPI) — A British expert who helped develop Oxford University’s COVID-19 vaccine said Saturday it is “extremely unlikely” the newly discovered Omicron variant will trigger a wave of serious illness among vaccinated people.

Andrew Pollard, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, told the BBC he was cautiously optimistic that existing vaccines — such as the one his Oxford team helped develop for AstraZeneca — could be effective at preventing serious disease from the Omicron variant.

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Global alarms have been raised over the characteristics of the variant’s large number of mutations, “some of which are concerning,” according to the World Health Organization.

The variant was first identified in Botswana this month, then was found in South Africa and has since turned up in Europe, including a suspected first case announced Saturday in Germany. In response, Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia and other countries have announced travel bans from the southern Africa region.

Scientists are racing to pin down its properties, such as whether it can bypass immune responses generated by existing vaccines and if it can cause more severe illnesses than other variants do, with results expected within weeks.

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The variant has triggered alarm because it contains more than 30 changes to the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that is the main target of the body’s immune responses — this could be linked to heightened infectivity and an increased ability to evade infection-blocking antibodies, the journal Nature reported.

But Pollard said most of Omicron’s mutations are similar to those seen in previous variants, none of which have proven able to produce serious illness in vaccinated people.

“Despite those mutations existing in other variants, the vaccines have continued to prevent serious disease as we’ve moved through Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta,” he said.

“At least from a speculative point of view, we have some optimism that the vaccine should still work against a new variant for serious disease but really we need to wait several weeks to have that confirmed.

“It’s extremely unlikely that a reboot of a pandemic in a vaccinated population like we saw last year is going to happen,” he added.

Likewise, British-based health analyst Dr. John Campbell told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle Saturday that Omicron is “not likely to completely invalidate vaccines.”

“It might reduce the efficacy but it’s looking like the vaccines will continue to prevent severe illness, hospitalization and death in the vast majority of cases,” Campbell said.

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“The good news is that [vaccine] manufacturers assure us they are able to genetically tweak their vaccines quite quickly,” he added. “It’s quite reasonable to assume that they can get a vaccine that is more specific to the Omicron variant within two months.”