COVID may be one or two variants away from defeating vaccines, study warns

NEW YORK — The Omicron variant is providing scientists with more evidence that COVID-19 is now capable of evading the current antibody treatments and vaccines available, a new study warns. Researchers from Columbia University suggest that new versions of the coronavirus vaccine may be necessary sooner rather than later to end the pandemic.

Concerningly, the study of Omicron’s ability to bypass current treatments finds the SARS-CoV-2 virus is continuing to mutate. Moreover, those mutations are bringing the virus closer to rendering available vaccines and monoclonal antibody therapies useless.

“It is not too far-fetched to think that SARS-CoV-2 is now only a mutation or two away from being completely resistant to current antibodies, either the monoclonal antibodies used as therapies or the antibodies generated by vaccination or infection with previous variants,” says study author Dr. David Ho in a university release.

Omicron more elusive than previous variants

The study found Omicron has an “alarming number” of changes in its spike protein, the part of the virus which attaches itself to the surface of human cells. Current treatments recognize the typical SARS-CoV-2 spike protein and attack the virus.

Researchers tested how well antibodies coming from vaccines neutralize the Omicron variant. To do this, the team used live virus samples of the new variant and lab-created “pseudoviruses,” pitting them against COVID antibodies in a lab setting.

Results show antibodies coming from people with two doses of the four major vaccines available — Moderna, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson — were all significantly less effective at stopping Omicron. Although studies show a previous COVID infection also produces antibodies which keep people from getting sick again, the new study finds these antibodies are even less effective at stopping Omicron than the ones from vaccinations.

Will a booster shot help protect against the Omicron variant?

Although a booster shot of either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines — the two mRNA vaccines available — did provide more protection against Omicron, researchers note these antibodies still displayed a weaker ability to neutralize the virus in comparison to previous COVID variants.

“The new results suggest that previously infected individuals and fully vaccinated individuals are at risk for infection with the omicron variant,” says Ho. “Even a third booster shot may not adequately protect against omicron infection, but of course it is advisable to get one, as you’ll still benefit from some immunity.”

For patients dealing with a COVID infection, monoclonal antibodies usually prevent the illness from turning serious or fatal. The study reveals these treatment strategies also appear to be less effective against the Omicron strain or fail to work at all.

Moreover, a minor strain of Omicron appears to be completely resistant to all antibody treatments in use currently. The team calls this variant the “most complete escapee from neutralization” so far. In total, Ho’s team discovered four new spike protein mutations in the Omicron variant. All of them help the virus elude detection in the body.

The findings are published in the journal Nature.

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