NEW YORK — Pfizer has already started working on a version of its COVID-19 vaccine specifically targeting the Omicron variant in case the current inoculation is not effective against the new strain, the US drugmaker’s CEO Albert Bourla said Monday. He also said he was confident that the firm’s recently unveiled antiviral pill would be effective against the variant.
Bourla told CNBC that his company on Friday began testing its current vaccine against the Omicron variant, which was first reported in South Africa and reignited fears of a global wave of COVID-19 infections.
“I don’t think the result will be the vaccines don’t protect,” Bourla said.
But the testing could show that existing shots “protect less,” which means “that we need to create a new vaccine,” Bourla said.
“Friday, we made our first DNA template, which is the first possible inflection of the development process of a new vaccine,” he said.
Bourla likened the situation to the scenario earlier this year when Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech developed a vaccine in 95 days, when there were concerns the previous formula would not work against Delta, though that version ultimately was not used.
The current vaccine is “very effective” against Delta, the executive said, adding that the companies expect to be able to produce four billion vaccine doses in 2022.
On Monday, the World Health Organization warned that the new COVID-19 Omicron variant poses a “very high” risk globally.
Bourla said he was also “very confident” that Pfizer’s recently unveiled antiviral pill would work as a treatment for infections caused by the mutations, including Omicron.
Pfizer asked US regulators two weeks ago to authorize its experimental pill for COVID-19, Paxlovid, setting the stage for a likely launch this winter of a promising treatment that can be taken at home.
Among newly-infected high-risk patients treated within three days of the onset of symptoms, Pfizer’s pill has been shown to cut hospitalization or death by nearly 90 percent. The Food and Drug Administration is also reviewing a competing pill from Merck and several smaller drugmakers are also expected to seek authorization for their own antiviral pills in the coming months.