Live updates: follow the latest news on Covid-19 variant Omicron
BioNTech’s chief executive has sought to allay fears about the Omicron coronavirus variant, saying the Pfizer vaccine is likely to offer robust defence against severe disease.
Ugur Sahin, who is also co-founder of the drug giant, said people should not “freak out” about the latest variant which has sent governments rushing to impose travel restrictions.
He said that even though the highly mutated variant could result in more vaccinated people becoming infected with the virus, it will probably be targeted by immune cells.
“Don’t freak out,” Mr Sahin told Dow Jones. “The plan remains the same: speed up the administration of a third booster shot.”
"To my mind there's no reason to be particularly worried,” he said. "We think it's likely that people will have substantial protection against severe disease caused by Omicron.”
His comments were in stark contrast to those made by Moderna chief executive Stephane Bancel, who said Omicron is "highly infectious" and warned it is "highly possible" that the effectiveness of vaccines is falling.
“I think it’s going to be a material drop,” he added. “I just don’t know how much because we need to wait for the data. But all the scientists I’ve talked to ... are like, ‘This is not going to be good’.”
The latest variant stands out from previous mutations as it contains more than 30 changes to the spike protein – the Covid protein that recognises host cells and is the main target of the body’s immune response.
BioNTech developed one of the world’s most commonly used Covid vaccines in conjunction with Pfizer. In December last year, the UK was the first country to approve the use of the shot.
On Tuesday, Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the UK's booster programme will be extended to all over-18s in England by the end of January.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said vaccines remain the best way to “build our defences” against the latest variant as he touched on the expansion of the programme which aims to administer 23 million boosters in the next two months.
In an interview with Sky News, Mr Javid admitted it was “a huge ask” of the National Health Service and urged anyone in a position to volunteer to give doses out to come forward.
Referring to the current vaccines on the market, he said it is “very likely that they’ll remain effective against serious disease” from Omicron, but said scientists are “working at pace” to learn more about the variant.
Earlier this week, the UK government announced new Covid restrictions, including the return of the mandatory mask rule for public transport and shops.
Everyone travelling to the UK, regardless of their vaccination status, will also have to take a PCR test two days after arrival and self-isolate until they receive a negative result.
Those who have come into contact with a person infected with Omicron will have to self-isolate, regardless of whether they are double vaccinated or not.
On Tuesday, the World Health Organisation said the over-60s should not travel overseas, but Mr Javid declined to side with the global body. Instead, he said any person in that age category should continue to travel using “sensible ways to protect yourself” like wearing a mask on a plane and getting a booster vaccine.
Mr Javid praised South Africa for being “openly transparent” about the Omicron variant and denied the UK had “penalised” the nation by placing it on the travel red list.
Asked if people should continue with their Christmas party plans, he said they should but it would be a good idea to take a Covid test before attending.