'Don't freak out': Ugur Sahin takes a different tone on Omicron than his mRNA counterpart — reports
Whereas some public health officials and biopharma leaders — including Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel — are sounding the alarm over the new Omicron coronavirus variant, BioNTech chief Ugur Sahin is pressing a more cautious approach.
In interviews Tuesday with the Wall Street Journal and Reuters, Sahin cautioned that little is yet known of the variant’s ability to cause severe Covid-19, and T cell responses among the vaccinated would likely remain strong. Though the biotech is still conducting lab tests to determine whether antibody protection will be diminished, Sahin isn’t pressing the panic button.
“Our message is: Don’t freak out, the plan remains the same: Speed up the administration of a third booster shot,” Sahin told WSJ on Tuesday.
The comments stand in stark contrast to an interview Bancel gave to the Financial Times earlier this week, in which he predicted a significant drop in vaccine effectiveness against Omicron. Bancel hedged, noting he didn’t know how steep the drop would be, but stressed that “all the scientists I’ve talked to … are like, ‘This is not going to be good.’”
Omicron has shaken global markets since South African scientists first detected the variant last week, and countries around the world are issuing new travel bans in the hopes of stemming the tide. The variant has been particularly notable for its high number of mutations, leading to fears it may be more contagious than the Alpha or Delta strains and infect vaccinated people more easily.
But Sahin told WSJ he thinks those who received their shots — especially those that got a booster — would still be protected against severe disease resulting in hospitalization or death. The CEO highlighted that the shot produced by BioNTech and Pfizer has largely lowered severe disease risk from other variants and said most Delta breakthrough infections are mild.
He said the same would likely hold true for Omicron, as T cells continue to offer protection even if the virus evades antibodies. The reduction in antibody protection against Omicron is yet to be determined, he told Reuters, but he is expecting some loss against mild and moderate disease.
Even so, Sahin is staying calm.
“To my mind there’s no reason to be particularly worried. The only thing that worries me at the moment is the fact that there are people that have not been vaccinated at all,” Sahin told Reuters.
While researchers await answers on ongoing lab tests, the virus and emerging variants aren’t going away any time soon. The pandemic has already created a boon for Pfizer and Moderna, with the former also developing an antiviral pill it says is 89% effective in reducing severe disease in infected individuals.
Pfizer also likely has a leg up on Merck, another company working on an oral treatment. In an adcomm yesterday, advisers narrowly voted to recommend authorizing the Merck pill despite questions about efficacy and concerns over using the therapy in pregnant women.