Original coronavirus strain 'no longer found in humans' after Omicron takeover

Sub-types now dominate and will be the focus of new vaccine, BioNTech says

 A paramedic wearing a protective face mask and gloves is seen at the back of an ambulance outside St Thomas' hospital, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, London, Britain, April 1, 2020. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
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The original strain of the virus that causes Covid-19 can no longer be detected in humans, a leading scientist said on Monday.

The Alpha and Delta mutations that worsened the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 also appear to be extinct.

They have been supplanted by subtypes of the Omicron strain that now account for most of the world’s cases.

Ugur Sahin, one of the creators of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, said existing shots offer partial protection against the current strains.

But BioNTech expects hospital admissions to rise again this winter and plans to launch a new vaccine by then that specifically takes aim at the Omicron XBB.1.5 strain.

The German company announced a loss of €190.4 million ($209.4 million) in the second quarter of 2023 as vaccine sales dropped. It made a profit of €1.67 billion ($1.84 billion) in the same period last year.

It expects to sell €5 billion ($5.5 billion) worth of vaccines this year but plans to cut its research and development budget to no more than €2.2 billion ($2.42 billion) because of uncertainty in the market.

The World Health Organisation declared in May that the virus no longer amounted to a “global health emergency”, drawing a symbolic line under the pandemic.

It declared the emergency in January 2020 when the “wild-type” virus first detected in Wuhan, China, began spreading around the world.

The system of using Greek letters to designate variants began after the Alpha and Delta strains, originally linked to the UK and India, respectively, became dominant.

Despite gaps in surveillance, available data “indicates that the original virus and other early variants such as Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, are no longer detected in humans,” Mr Sahin, who is BioNTech’s chief executive, said on Monday.

He told investors that variants descended from Omicron XBB.1 “predominate globally” and that “signs of waning protection have been observed” two to four months after a booster vaccine.

“Our goal is to maintain protection against severe Covid-19 disease, hospitalisation and death by providing a vaccine that is better matched to the currently circulating strains,” said Mr Sahin.

Turkish-German scientists Ozlem Tureci, left, and Ugur Sahin were commended for their part in creating the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. AP

The company’s chief medical officer, Ozlem Tureci, said BioNTech expects “persisting demand” for vaccines and boosters that especially target “at-risk and immunocompromised groups”.

She said current strains were “antigenically distant” even from initial variants of Omicron, which first emerged in late 2021, as well as from the wild-type and earlier mutations.

Evidence suggests that vaccines matched to dominant sub-lineages can bring “further improved protection” against symptomatic disease and severe illness, Ms Tureci said.

Mr Sahin and Ms Tureci, who are married, founded the company in 2008 and achieved global acclaim by creating their coronavirus vaccine with US drug company Pfizer.

It was the world’s first fully trialled and approved Covid-19 vaccine and was widely used in global immunisation efforts. An estimated 4.6 billion doses have been shipped worldwide, according to Pfizer.

The German-Turkish couple, who are also working on cancer treatments, received a German Order of Merit and the country’s top medical prize in honour of their work on the vaccine.

Updated: August 07, 2023, 3:24 PM