Inside the race to test omicron's true threat

Microbiologist Milagros Sola processes coronavirus disease (COVID-19) tests in a lab at Madigan Army Medical Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, U.S. April 14, 2020. REUTERS/David Ryder
1 / 4HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/USAMicrobiologist Milagros Sola processes coronavirus disease (COVID-19) tests in a lab at Madigan Army Medical Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, U.S. April 14, 2020. REUTERS/David Ryder

Microbiologist Pei-Yong Shi has studied all the variants: alpha, beta, gamma, delta, “delta-plus,” lambda and mu. So he was ready for omicron, the variant that incited global anxiety unlike any of the variants that came before.

Like most scientists, he was shocked by the sheer number of mutations. He also knew exactly what to do next.

Shi runs a high-containment laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch, in Galveston, and collaborates closely with Pfizer. Over Thanksgiving, his team began engineering a replica of the new variant to test against the antibodies generated by vaccines. But it doesn't happen overnight: It will take about two weeks to build the omicron replica, another few days to confirm that it's an accurate facsimile, and one more week to pit the virus against blood samples from vaccinated people.

Shi and colleagues around the world are in an urgent race to gauge the danger posed by omicron, which is rapidly seeding itself everywhere. As the tally of cases mounts, what happens inside labs over the next few weeks will help scientists determine the true potential of the virus, tipping off government officials and pharmaceutical companies about whether they need to revise their global vaccination campaign.

His message: Be patient. Wait for the data.

“I think there is a lot of overreaction, and we just have to sit tight,” Shi said. “There are no results yet, these are just the mutations. What does that mean? We have to see.”

There's no doubt that omicron is different – and worrisome. It is riddled with mutations, some known to help the coronavirus dodge the body's immune defenses. Others are newcomers, a complete mystery. Omicron has more than 30 genetic changes in the coronavirus spike where vaccines train their firepower.

But the scientific community is focused, not freaked out – perhaps because it has seen this movie before: A new variant pops up, and everyone on the planet is desperate to know how bad it is. Science ensues.

First, researchers will test how well the virus is equipped to dodge current vaccines. At the same time, they will watch closely what happens in the real world. Most scientists are betting omicron will have some capacity to slip past the virus-blocking antibodies that form a primary line of defense – but no one knows yet how deft an escape artist it will turn out to be. Many also believe vaccines are likely to retain a level of protection, particularly against severe illness.

Even the worst-case omicron possibility – faster-than-delta transmission, a sharp erosion in the protection afforded by vaccines and higher rates of severe disease – isn't a hopeless scenario. Companies will reboot omicron-specific vaccines and test them. Vaccine-makers have already begun adapting their vaccines as a precaution, and even ran a dress rehearsal of this strategy earlier this year, against the beta variant.

Omicron is still studded with question marks. Does it, as some preliminary data from South Africa suggest, spread more easily than delta? Can it evade the multiple lines of defense mustered by vaccines? Is it more pathogenic – capable of causing severe disease?

“Working on it! No data yet!” Penny Moore, the scientist whose laboratory in South Africa first revealed the immune-evading potential of the beta variant, wrote in an email. “We have to create the spike by introducing the many mutations, or grow the live virus.”

Matthew B. Frieman, a coronavirus expert at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, hopes samples of the virus will arrive in the next week so he can start experiments in lab dishes and vaccinated mice. Many people, including him, had shared the hope that as vaccine eligibility was expanded to younger children, it might be a last steppingstone before resuming more normal life.

Instead, his Thanksgiving was interrupted by phone calls and Zoom meetings, continuing a relentless pace of work with few slow periods since January 2020.

“There is an urgency to know, but it's been urgent for two years,” Frieman said. “The good thing is, we know what to do. We've been planning for this, and we know the science to do. We know what assays work and how to do them. We have mice vaccinated and ready to be infected.”

Speculation that coronavirus vaccines could falter against omicron has sent tremors through financial markets and concern through a pandemic-weary public wondering whether Christmas is canceled or travel plans need to be rescheduled. Most experts are measured.

“We're in a position of gathering data,” said John Mascola, director of the National Institutes of Health's Vaccine Research Center. “The virus has proved to us that it has an uncanny ability to evolve rapidly, and it has the ability to change in a way that dramatically changes the variant that is predominant in the world.”

But will omicron usurp delta, just as delta took over from alpha?

“We need about two more weeks” to see laboratory data and what the virus does on the ground, Mascola said.

Scientists do know the path to answers. They've walked it many times during this pandemic.

If they decide a revised shot is necessary – far from certain at this point – the process will take about three months for the messenger RNA shots.

“This is essentially the same drill, as I call it, that we are always using. We stay very . . . levelheaded about it,” said Kathrin U. Jansen, Pfizer's head of vaccine research and development. “What we are seeing right now is everyone is afraid of the unknown. . . . What I think, as a scientist, is that what's unknown, we don't address that with fear, but with studying that and getting the data.”

The Texas scientists, clad head-to-toe in protective gear, work in secure biosafety laboratories. They start with the original strain of coronavirus, the virus isolated in Snohomish County, Wash., nearly two years ago. They synthesize the omicron spike gene, with its dozens of mutations. Using the original virus as a scaffold, they swap in the new spike – steps they've done for alpha, beta, gamma, delta – and now omicron.

Once the virus is ready, the Texas researchers will test it against a panel of 20 antibody-rich blood samples taken from people fully vaccinated with the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine. This will tell them how good the virus is at evading this key line of immune defense and allow them to compare it to other variants.

Other labs are working on similar experiments with blood from vaccinated patients, including those who have received booster shots.

Mehul Suthar, an immunologist at Emory University, is eager to study omicron itself in his high-containment laboratory, where he typically dilutes a vaccinated patient's blood in stages to see at what point a variant is able to break through the antibodies and infect cells.

“We're all scrambling to get ahold of the virus,” Suthar said.

Other laboratories don't experiment with the virus itself, but instead create pseudoviruses – a version that superficially looks like the variant, and is capable of infecting an individual cell in lab experiments, but that is designed to be incapable of replicating. These pseudoviruses carry the spike protein of the variant but are easier to work with because they don't require layers of protective gear and biocontainment laboratories.

Collectively, those tests will show how much antibody protection drops against omicron. If it's a big enough reduction, vaccine-makers may decide to reboot their shots with new genetic sequences that match the changes in omicron's spikes. They're already laying the groundwork.

But that is only one line of evidence. Omicron's true threat will be revealed not only by what it does in a laboratory dish, but also by what it does outside the lab.

A preprint study from South African scientists, for example, found evidence that people previously infected with the coronavirus may not have much of a shield against omicron, with reinfections three times likelier than during previous outbreaks. The paper did not shed light on how severe reinfections were or whether vaccinated people were more likely to experience breakthrough infections when exposed to omicron compared with their response to other variants.

“It's going to be a deluge of unfiltered information – press releases, preprint servers, some people making opinions, but I think the scientific community has definitely engaged very quickly, so hopefully a scientific consensus will emerge,” said Dan H. Barouch, director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

“To some extent, it's: Here we go again, we have another job to do,” said Barouch, who helped develop the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Scientists debate how well omicron's ensemble of mutations will help it get around immune defenses. But most agree that even if it barrels through that key line of defense, it won't zero out the protection from vaccines.

“We are no longer a blank slate. We have preexisting immunity, even though it may not be perfectly matched,” said Barney Graham, a key architect of the coronavirus vaccines, who recently retired from the National Institutes of Health.

Previous variants already taught that lesson. The beta variant posed a clear threat to immune protection in a dish. But clinical trials of the Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines showed they still offered protection to people.

Although it is difficult to predict from a virus's mutations how it will act, many scientists say they think omicron may ultimately require a revised vaccine.

“At this point, the wise thing to do is to start the early steps for making a booster against this variant,” said Jesse Bloom, an expert on viral evolution at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

The major vaccine companies are at work doing that, just in case. Pfizer and BioNTech have announced that adapting their vaccine will take six weeks and that the first batches could be shipped within 100 days. Moderna is formulating an omicron-specific candidate, a process that typically takes 60 to 90 days based on its experience doing so against beta and delta. Johnson & Johnson is pursuing an omicron-specific shot.

Instead of running time-consuming large-scale trials that depend on waiting for people to get ill, vaccine-makers expect to be able to show that their revamped vaccines are safe and effective by measuring immune responses in blood samples taken from study participants.

“We can turn the key relatively quickly and start to produce the updated vaccine,” Pfizer's Jansen said.

This could also be the moment for second-generation vaccines designed to be variant-proof by triggering a broader swath of immunity beyond antibodies.

“Our premise was that this would happen,” said Andrew Allen, chief executive of Gritstone Bio, a company whose vaccine formula is designed to rouse protection from T cells, the immune-system warriors that kill infected cells. “It is naive to think that the very first vaccine we made in the very first hot minutes of the pandemic would be the very best vaccine we could make.”

The idea behind Gritstone's vaccine is that a broader set of immune defenses will free the world from constantly trying to play catch-up to the latest mutant strain of the virus.

But unless more of the world becomes vaccinated, the frenzy of worry is likely to continue to repeat.

“If we don't develop systems to immunize the whole world in three months, instead of three years, we are not going to be successful against these kind of pandemic threats,” Graham said. “Because viruses adapt and they change, and unless we develop generalized global immunity more readily, we will always be faced with chasing our tail.”

Related Content

News Related

OTHER NEWS

Covid boosters raise protection against death from Omicron to 95% among 50-plus, UKHSA says

© PA Archive Stock image: Nurse prepares vaccines – PA Archive Covid boosters increase protection against death from the Omicron variant to 95% in people aged 50 and over, the ... Read more »

Prince Andrew's demand for trial by jury 'is a message to bring it on'

Prince Andrew has demanded a jury trial. (PA) The Duke of York's demand for a jury trial is him telling his accusers to “bring it on”, a legal commentator has ... Read more »

Man who accosted Chris Whitty in London park jailed for eight weeks

Jonathan Chew, 24, outside Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London. (PA) A man has been jailed for eight weeks after accosting Professor Chris Whitty in a London park. Jonathan Chew, 24, ... Read more »

95% of India's adult population given first dose of Covid vaccine, 74% fully inoculated: Health ministry

Ninety five per cent of India’s eligible adult population has been administered the first dose of Covid vaccine while 74 per cent are fully inoculated, the Union health ministry said ... Read more »

Tesla Optimus robot probably won't be a big profit driver, Wall Street thinks

Elon Musk may be bullish on the potential of Tesla's Optimus robot, but Wall Street is taking a more muted stance on any potential machine army moving the needle financially. ... Read more »

Woman in Australia reports experiencing awkward ‘headlight' issue after getting Pfizer vaccine

Tee Jay claims she’s dealing with permanent “headlights”. wippa_snippa/Instagram An awkward vaccine side effect has been reported by a Victorian woman who claims her body’s “high beams” have been permanently ... Read more »

UK Covid efforts should target unvaccinated, says expert

Vaccine expert says focus should shift away from booster programme and directed to first doses Efforts to increase uptake of Covid jabs in the UK should be concentrated on reducing ... Read more »

Polish government accused of murder after pregnant woman carrying dead foetus dies

A woman holds a banner that reads ‘it could be any of us’ during a protest about Poland‘s abortion laws in front of the Law and Justice party office Poland’s ... Read more »

Jacob Rees-Mogg criticised after claiming Labour 'only care about cake and animals' amid Partygate row

Jacob Rees-Mogg hit out at Labour for ‘only caring about cakes and animals’. (PA) Jacob Rees-Mogg has been criticised for claiming Labour “only care about cake and animals” after an ... Read more »

Voices: Prince Andrew wants a jury trial now? He'll be in for a rude awakening

The New Yorker jury members might have some trouble understanding his drawling aristocratic vowels, for a start (Getty) I don’t know who’s doing Prince Andrew’s PR these days, maybe someone ... Read more »

Scientists warn of 'stealth' variant blamed for rise in Euro cases

Covid cases are continuing to recede in the U.S. – down 20 percent over the past week to 615,958 per day – but health officials warn that the next threat ... Read more »

Covid live news: UK reports 96,871 cases and 338 deaths as England drops mask rules and other ‘plan B' restrictions

LIVE – Updated at 16:31 UK reports another 96,871 Covid cases and 338 deaths as compulsory use of face masks and work from home guidance ends in England.   16:31 ... Read more »

A Solution to the Faint-Sun Paradox Reveals a Narrow Window for Life

Back when the sun was 30% dimmer, Earth should have frozen solid. Yet water flowed and life blossomed. The solution to the paradox shows that we might have that faint sun to owe for life’s existence — with critical consequences for the possibility of life outside Earth. Read more »

Where did that sound come from?

MIT neuroscientists have developed a computer model that can answer that question as well as the human brain. Read more »

Satgas Covid-19 Prediksi Kasus Omicron Lebih Banyak dari Yang Terdeteksi

© Copyright (c) 2016 TEMPO.CO foto TEMPO.CO, Jakarta – Juru bicara Satuan Tugas Penanganan Covid-19 Wiku Adisasmito memprediksi kasus Covid-19 varian Omicron yang menyebar di Tanah Air lebih banyak dari ... Read more »

Months After Moderna Booster, Antibodies Decline Faster With Omicron

© Provided by HealthDay THURSDAY, Jan. 27, 2022 (HealthDay News) — An initial surge in antibody levels against the Omicron variant after a booster dose of the Moderna COVID vaccine ... Read more »

Covid live: England drops all ‘plan B' restrictions; boosters ‘could cut Europe hospitalisations by up to 800,000'

LIVE – Updated at 15:16 Compulsory use of face masks and work from home guidance ends in England; EU health agency says boosters could reduce future hospitalisations.   15:16 India’s ... Read more »

This smart TV is on sale for just $200 at Amazon Canada: 'Worth every penny':

This smart TV is on sale for just $200 at Amazon Canada (Photo via Amazon) Yahoo Lifestyle Canada is committed to finding you the best products at the best prices. ... Read more »

Demystifying machine-learning systems

A new method automatically describes, in natural language, what the individual components of a neural network do. Read more »

Tragedy as two teenagers found dead at nature reserve

Two teenagers have been sadly found dead POLICE are investigating after two teenagers were found dead at a nature reserve. Officers were called to Bothenhampton Nature Reserve, Bothenhampton, near Bridport, ... Read more »

Scientists Watch, Worry About New 'Stealth' Version of Omicron Variant

© Provided by HealthDay THURSDAY, Jan. 27, 2022 (HealthDay News) — A “stealthier” version of the Omicron variant that has been spotted in the United States and dozens of other ... Read more »

COVID-19: Schools, colleges to remain closed in Delhi

Schools and colleges will continue to remain closed in the national capital and the issue will be taken up in the next meeting of the Delhi Disaster Management Authority (DDMA), ... Read more »

COVID-19: Is back pain a symptom of the Omicron variant?

© (photo credit: PR) Back pain relief Since the coronavirus pandemic began, there was a clear list of symptoms, from fever to shortness of breath to loss of taste and ... Read more »

Kasus Probable Omicron di DIY Jadi 16

© Ahmad Mustaqim Hasil tes SGTF belum bisa jadi dasar menyatakan sampel tersebut merupakan Omicron. Yogyakarta: Kasus covid-19 probabel atau diduga varian Omicron di Daerah Istimewa Yogyakarta (DIY) bertambah 12. ... Read more »

Omicron on the rise as experts warn new BA.2 strain growing

Omicron cases in London have begun to rise as experts fear the new BA.2 strain is beginning to take hold. Although Plan B restrictions have now been eased, the ZOE ... Read more »

Mulai 11 Februari ke Inggris Tak Perlu Lagi Tes Covid-19

© Copyright (c) 2016 TEMPO.CO foto TEMPO.CO, Jakarta – Inggris menghapus tes Covid-19 untuk pelancong mulai 11 Februari 2022. Dalam keterangan resminya, Kedutaan Besar Inggris di Jakarta menyatakan turis yang ... Read more »

9,672 Omicron samples found in January in genome sequencing, huge rise from December: Govt

Image Source: Reuters As many as 9,672 Omicron samples were found in January in genome sequencing constituting 75 per cent of the total sequenced samples of COVID-19, a huge rise ... Read more »

Sussex PCs sentenced for assaulting handcuffed 14-year-old girl

Two police officers have been sentenced after assaulting a 14-year-old girl TWO Sussex Police officers have been sentenced for assaulting a 14-year-old girl while she was detained in handcuffs inside ... Read more »

Sue Gray: Joe Lycett releases parody report into Downing Street lockdown parties

Joe Lycett has offered up his own version of the Sue Gray report as the nation awaits her findings about Downing Street lockdown parties. Senior civil servant Gray is leading ... Read more »

ITV explains why Vera episode didn't air - as Brenda Blethyn shares exciting update

Picture: ITV/TWITTER TELLY bosses have explained why two further episodes of Vera did not air at the weekend as the show appeared to be replaced by a new series. Viewers ... Read more »

Omicron Antar Inggris Kembali ke Rencana A: Tanpa Wajib Masker dan Paspor Vaksin

© Copyright (c) 2016 TEMPO.CO foto TEMPO.CO, Jakarta – Inggris akan kembali ke “Rencana A” yaitu belajar untuk hidup berdampingan dengan virus corona yang mungkin akan tetap ada, setelah sempat ... Read more »

Meet the man who won a trip to space - and had to give it to a friend! Kyle Hippchen, 43, was forced to donate his ticket on board SpaceX's first tourist flight because he was too FAT

Kyle Hippchen won a raffle for a ticket to be part of SpaceX's Inspiration4 crewHowever, he discovered he exceeded SpaceX's 250lbs (113kg) weight limitHe donated his seat went to his college roomate, Chris Sembroski, 42  Read more »

Nearly 1,000 mysterious strands of magnetic filaments are discovered dangling 'inexplicably' at the heart of the Milky Way

The mysterious magnetic filaments were first spotted by astronomers in 1984However, new data has revealed that there are ten times more than was thought The larger population of strands will allow for new forms of statistical analysis The team said that each strand is made of electrons gyrating the magnetic field The strands may be connected to Milky Way's central supermassive black hole Read more »

Mysterious black diamond heads to auction

This mysterious black diamond is going to auction Location: Beverly Hills, California The 555.55-carat diamond is called ‘The Enigma’ as its origins are unknown Some say it’s possible the carbonado ... Read more »

Tidak Seperti Delta, Omicron Lebih Ringan tapi Cepat Menular

© Copyright (c) 2016 TEMPO.CO foto TEMPO.CO, Jakarta – Omicron adalah varian Covid-19 yang dianggap paling menular tetapi dampaknya tidak mematikan seperti halnya varian Delta. Dilansir dari laman Healthline, hal ... Read more »

Early signs of Covid cases plateauing reported but need to be observed, says govt

Early indications of Covid infections plateauing have been reported in some places but the trend needs to be observed, the Union government said on Thursday whilst noting that 400 districts ... Read more »

These Are The Best (And Worst) Sleep Positions For Good Posture

. (Photo: Levitex/Getty) Do you wake up with a stiff neck or aching back? Your sleep position could be behind the problem. A whopping 82% of Brits are sleeping in ... Read more »

Paracetamol and ibuprofen in short supply after Omicron surge

© PA Archive Paracetamol change reduces deaths Shoppers have been struggling to get hold of paracetamol from many supermarkets while beer shelves are overflowing, as the impact of Omicron continues ... Read more »

Pam & Tommy: The story behind the world's first celebrity sex tape

Baywatch star Pamela Anderson and Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee met on New Year’s Eve 1994 at the Sanctuary nightclub in LA. Two months later, after a four-day romance on ... Read more »

Omicron sub-variant BA.2 is more prevalent in India now: Health Ministry

The BA.2 subvariant of Omicron variant of coronavirus is now more prevalent in India now, the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) Director said on Thursday at a press conference. ... Read more »
On free-english-test.com you will find lots of free English exam practice materials to help you improve your English skills: grammar, listening, reading, writing, ielts, toeic