The boss of BioNTech believes the Omicron variant is unlikely to cause severe illness in people fully vaccinated with the Pfizer shot amid fears of a new winter wave.
Dr Ugur Sahin, co-founder of the Germany-based company and Pfizer’s Covid vaccine manufacturing partner, told The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday that the variant can cause breakthrough infections at a higher rate.
However, once in the body, the variant would likely be destroyed.
He said: ‘If a virus achieves immune escape, it achieves it against antibodies, but there is the second level of immune response that protects from severe disease – the T-cells.
‘Even as an escape variant, the virus will hardly be able to completely evade the T-cells.’
Dr Sahin also claimed that a vaccinated person will have the immune system capacity necessary to defeat the mutated virus, and encouraged people to get their booster shots when they can.
Many experts have feared that the Covid vaccines would not effective against the variant because of how many mutations is has of the spike protein that the vaccines target.
But the BioNTech chief added: ‘Don’t freak out, the plan remains the same: Speed up the administration of a third booster shot.’
Britain’s Covid crisis shrunk on all three fronts today, official figures show despite eight new cases of the Omicron variant being discovered in England prompting No10 to announce a mammoth new booster drive.
Department of Health bosses posted 39,716 new positive tests over the last 24 hours, down 6.5 per cent on last Tuesday’s figure of 42,484.
It was the fourth day in a row cases have fallen, despite the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) announcing it has sequenced the supermutant strain in Barnet and Haringey in London, Liverpool, North Norfolk and Sutton.
The number of people dying with the virus also fell 3.6 per cent to 159 today, down from 165 recorded last week.
And hospitalisations dropped to 718 on Friday, the latest date that data is available for. It was down 6.1 per cent on the previous week and marked the fourteenth day admissions had fallen.
The figures come as Boris Johnson pledged to deliver third doses to all adults by the end of January to shield the nation against the new variant.
The Prime Minister announced he is drafting in the Army again to help deliver the programme and will offer GPs an extra £15 for every injection as he promised to deliver another ‘great British vaccination effort’.
A £5 bonus will be given to GPs per shot if they do them on Sundays and they will get a £30 premium for shots delivered to the most vulnerable who are unable to leave their homes. The Government is also recruiting 10,000 more paid vaccine volunteers and ‘tens of thousands’ more volunteers to help with the mammoth drive.
But it will likely mean fewer face face-to-face GP appointments for non-Covid patients, which are already running at about a fifth lower than pre-pandemic level.
Dr Ugur Sahin, co-founder of the Germany-based company and Pfizer’s Covid vaccine manufacturing partner, said on Tuesday that the jab provides people with two levels of protection from the virus
The Covid booster programme: Key points
– Every adult over the age of 18 in the UK will be offered a coronavirus booster jab by the end of January
– Jabs will be offered in five year descending age groups, starting with older adults and those who are most vulnerable before moving down
– The NHS will contact people when they are eligible to book an appointment for a jab
– There will be 1,500 community pharmacy sites to administer jabs and all will be told to increase capacity
– Extra vaccination hubs will open at hospitals across the country while temporary vaccine centres will also be set up
– 30 hospitals are already offering jabs to the public and dozens more will follow suit
– Combined there will be nearly 3,000 sites across the UK offering vaccinations
– At least 400 military personnel will be deployed to assist NHS staff and volunteers to deliver the jabs
– The UK has delivered 18million boosters already which is more than any other country apart from the US and China.
– That is the equivalent of 27.2 per cent of the whole UK population. Some 53million will eventually be eligible and 22m are eligible now.
– Community pharmacists will be incentivised to deliver more jabs, with the payment for standard delivery of a vaccination increased to £15 a shot.
– An extra £5 per shot will be offered to pharmacists if they work on Sundays
– A £30 premium will be offered to pharmacists for vaccinations delivered to people who are housebound
– The Care Quality Commission will continue a pause on routine inspections of general practice to free up clinicians’ time
– The NHS is looking at eliminating the 15 minute wait post-vaccination to increase the number of people who can access smaller venues
– The NHS is recruiting for up to 10,000 new paid vaccinator roles as well as for an army of ‘tens of thousands’ of new volunteers to help with the drive
In other coronavirus developments today:
- Mr Johnson and Mr Javid today tried to quell hospitality fears after health experts suggested it was ‘sensible’ for people to limit socialising over the festive period;
- The Prime Minister said he does not agree with Dr Jenny Harries, who urged people not to socialise if they do not need to in the run-up to Christmas, and was asked if Christmas parties should be cancelled;
- He said he does not think a repeat of the ‘pingdemic’ is likely to happen because Omicron case numbers remain low for the time being;
- Mr Johnson said he thought it ‘extremely unlikely’ that another lockdown would required but that he was ruling nothing out;
- The Prime Minister said the Government does not want people to cancel Christmas parties or nativity plays;
- NHS England chief executive Amanda Pritchard said she was aiming to free up capacity to allow hospitals, GPs and other services to administer more booster jabs;
- Ms Pritchard said they were looking at ‘how to cut other burdens on GPs to administer boosters’.
Scientists have cautioned that the boosters will probably not give the same level of protection against Omicron as they do against Delta because the new strain is so evolved.
But No10 hopes that the top-up in immunity will give people at least some extra protection against the variant.
Moderna warned today that a ‘material drop’ in the effectiveness of existing vaccines, particularly against infection.
But Pfizer has said it fully expects the current vaccines to provide high levels of protection against hospitalisation and death. Both firms are working on Omicron-specific booster shots that will be available from about mid 2022.
Mr Johnson told the Downing Street briefing that new vaccination centres will be ‘popping up like Christmas trees’ to get boosters in arms over the coming months, following reports that dozens of elderly and vulnerable around the country were struggling to get their jabs before the booster drive was expanded.
He said ‘proportional’ restrictions including compulsory face masks on public transport and in shops, nail salons and hairdressers have been brought in to buy time for scientists to ‘crack the Omicron code’ and would not remain in place ‘a minute longer than necessary’.
But there are concerns about whether the booster drive will be able to cope with the surge in demand. Even before the programme was expanded, there was a backlog of more than 7milllion people.
Of the 25million Britons over the age of 40 who were eligible yesterday, just 18million had come forward for one.
The new guidance change means that eventually 53million people aged 18 and above will be eligible, so long as it has been three months since their second dose.
An extra 6.9million people over the age of 40 were instantly made eligible when the new advice kicked in, as well as 7million Britons between 18 and 39. In total, 40million people are eligible today.
Speaking at a Downing Street Press Conference this evening, Mr Johnson said: ‘Now is the time for another great British vaccination effort. We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again, let’s not give this virus another chance.’
Boris Johnson today called on all Britons aged 18 and over to come forward for their booster by the end of January as the best line of defence against the new Omicron supermutant Covid variant
Vaccine-makers Moderna and Pfizer are already working on Covid vaccines that could tackle the Omicron strain, if it poses a problem for the current crop of vaccines, but they won’t be ready until mid-2022
The Botswana variant has around 50 mutations and more than 30 of them are on the spike protein. The current crop of vaccines trigger the body to recognise the version of the spike protein from older versions of the virus. But the mutations may make the spike protein look so different that the body’s immune system struggles to recognise it and fight it off. And three of the spike mutations (H665Y, N679K, P681H) help it enter the body’s cells more easily. Meanwhile, it is missing a membrane protein (NSP6) which was seen in earlier iterations of the virus, which experts think could make it more infectious. And it has two mutations (R203K and G204R) that have been present in all variants of concern so far and have been linked with infectiousness
Dr Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association and the first person to spot the new variant in a patient, said her patients infected with Omicron reported different and much milder symptoms, including tiredness, muscle aches, a sore head and a dry cough. But none reported the tell-tale symptoms of a loss of smell or taste or breathing difficulties
DON’T cancel Christmas parties! Boris and Saj try to quell hospitality fears
Boris Johnson and Sajid Javid today tried to quell hospitality fears after health experts suggested it was ‘sensible’ for people to limit socialising over the festive period.
The Prime Minister urged people not to cancel Christmas parties or school nativity plays as he promised to ‘throw everything’ at the booster vaccination campaign to tackle the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant.
He promised that everyone eligible would be offered a jab by the end of January with at least 400 military personnel helping the NHS, and vaccination centres ‘popping up like Christmas trees’.
Mr Johnson rejected a call from a senior health official to limit socialising in the run-up to Christmas, insisting that he had already put in place a package of ‘balanced and proportionate measures’ in response to the threat posed by the new variant.
But as cases of Omicron reached 22 in the UK, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said they were likely to go higher and ‘we have to be realistic’ that there is already likely to be transmission of the new strain within the community.
He added that people should get vaccinated to ‘give ourselves the best chance of a Christmas with our loved ones’.
Mr Javid said: ‘What we’re seeing recently has brought back memories of the strain of the last winter. But although we can’t say with certainty what lies ahead, we have one huge advantage that we didn’t have back then: our vaccination programme, which has already done so much to keep this virus at bay.
‘But these defences will only keep us safe if we use them. This is a national mission and we all have a role to play.
‘If we want to give ourselves the best chance of a Christmas with our loved ones, the best thing we can all do is step up, roll up our sleeves, and get protected when the time comes.’
The booster rollout has been plagued by problems since launching in September, however, which has raised concerns about whether it can cope with the increased capacity.
GPs say they are too busy trying to deal with record non-Covid care backlogs that have amassed during the pandemic and figures show there are a third fewer mass vaccination hubs giving out boosters now compared to the initial vaccine rollout.
Vulnerable patients say they’ve had to wait weeks to get a booster appointment because most are being administered in local pharmacies that are operating with limited staff and during limited hours.
Mr Johnson spoke out amid grave concerns in the NHS about his 500,000 jabs a day target to outpace Omicron — as ministers lined up GPs to do the work but doctors claimed they are ‘burnt out’ and warned more face-to-face appointments with patients will have to go if they are expected to help.
Today the Health Service Journal reported that from December 1, doctors will receive £15 for each jab given from Monday to Saturday – up from £12.58. This will reach £20 for Sunday and Bank Holiday vaccinations until the end of January. The pay for jabs in care homes and houses will also rise.
One NHS chief executive said getting GPs to lead the surge was ‘a very big ask, on top of many other very big asks’, adding it would be extremely difficult to reach the 3.5million rate due to a lack of medics, volunteers and facilities after a third of vaccination centres closed this summer.
A GP practice manager tweeted: ‘Cash won’t make much difference, it’s the workload & workforce that’s the problem. Is not just jabbers but the back room engine tracking and calling patients, organising rotas, sorting out logistics etc’.
Soldiers will also be called back. Some are currently helping deliver the vaccine in Scotland but not in England. Before they were stood down in July, as well as putting jabs in arms, they also co-ordinated distribution of the vaccines and set up vaccination centres.
Tens of thousands of volunteers and retired doctors and nurses who helped over the past 12 months will also be needed again this winter.
Speaking at the Downing Street press conference, Mr Johnson said: ‘We’ve already done almost 18 million boosters across the UK but we’ve got millions more to do to protect the most vulnerable.
‘Then we’ll move down the cohorts rapidly, and working together with the devolved administrations we want to ramp up capacity across the whole United Kingdom to the levels we achieved in the previous vaccination effort.
‘We’re going to be throwing everything at it in order to ensure that everyone eligible is offered that booster, as I say, in just over two months.’