UK approves first COVID-19 vaccine targeting Omicron

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The U.K. has authorized the first COVID-19 vaccine modified to provide greater protection against the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Moderna’s vaccine targets both the original virus and the first Omicron strain, known as BA.1, and has been approved as a booster for all adults aged 18 and over.

It marks the first worldwide approval for a variant-adapted vaccine; the European Medicines Agency is expected to authorize it at the end of the month in time for booster programs across the EU beginning in September. However, this vaccine will not be approved for use in the U.S. since authorities there have requested shots that target both the original virus and the latest Omicron strains, known as BA.4/5.

“The first generation of COVID-19 vaccines being used in the U.K. continue to provide important protection against the disease and save lives,” said June Raine, chief executive of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). “What this bivalent vaccine gives us is a sharpened tool in our armory to help protect us against this disease as the virus continues to evolve.”

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While the U.K. and Europe are seeking to maximize protection quickly ahead of the winter period when the virus is likely to circulate more, the U.S. has opted to wait for companies to develop slightly different vaccines.

It’s a gamble that not even the top infectious disease experts know the outcome of, since no one can predict which way the virus might mutate next.

Speaking to POLITICO recently, Peter Piot, former head of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who chairs a European scientific group that considered which vaccine to use next, said that there was consensus to go with the BA.1 bivalent shots.

They agreed that “the most important thing is to start early enough before there is the wave. Because, typically, governments often have started acting when there is already a peak. When you start vaccinating at the peak, to be honest, that’s too late,” he said.

The approval in the U.K. is based on a clinical trial of the vaccine which showed better immune response against Omicron, compared with a booster with the original vaccine.

The researchers tested samples of participants’ blood to observe how well the vaccine generated antibodies against Omicron BA.1 as well as other variants of concern. The vaccine boosted antibody levels against all other variants of concern compared to the original vaccine, Moderna said at the time.

In addition, the vaccine elicited potent neutralizing antibody responses against the Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 compared to the currently authorized booster, regardless of prior infection status or age.

The U.K.’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) will advise on how this vaccine should be offered as part of the deployment program.