One of the first peer-reviewed studies on the Omicron variant of COVID-19, published today, reveals that anyone who have previously been infected with COVID, as well as those who have been vaccinated, will have some “stronger than basic” defense against this new strain of concern.
Moreover, the test tube (or “in-vitro” samples of Omicron analyzed in this latest study demonstrate that it “exceeds” all other strains in its potential capacity to resist the protection gained from past infection or vaccination.
The findings, published in Emerging Microbes & Infection, also imply that while a third-dose augmentation technique can “significantly boost immunity,” Omicron protection “may be compromised” – but more research is needed to further understand this.
According to main author Youchun Wang, Senior Research Fellow from the National Institutes of Food and Drug Control in China, their findings support recent findings in South Africa that Omicron was “easy to evade immunity.”
“We found the large number of mutations of the Omicron variant did cause significant changes of neutralization sensitivity against people who had already had COVID,” said Wang.
“However, the average ED50 (protection level) against Omicron is still higher than the baseline, which indicated there is still some protection effect can be observed.”
He added that because antibody protection – whether from past infection or immunization – fades gradually over a six-month period, Omicron “may be able to escape immunity even better.”
Furthermore, according to his team’s report, while “a third-dose enhancement strategy can significantly boost immunity,” “protection from Omicron may be compromised.”
The 11-member expert team examined 28 serum samples from patients recovering from the initial strain of SARS-CoV-2. They compared them to in-vitro Omicron samples, as well as four other strains recognized as ‘of concern’ by the World Health Organization (such as Delta) and two variants designated as ‘of interest.’
“This study verifies the enhanced immune escape of Omicron variant, which sounds the alarm to the world and has important implications for the public health planning and the development of matching strategies,” added Wang.
The team now claims that more research, not just in-vitro but also in real-world trials, is urgently needed to better comprehend Omicron. And, more particularly, whether it can “escape from the vaccine elicited immunity to cause more severe disease and death”.
“It needs to be re-evaluated whether the antibodies can still be effective against the Omicron variant,” the authors added.
“The exact impact to human protection may be influenced by more factors such as the infectivity of Omicron variant relative to other variants to human populations and the viral fitness of Omicron once the humans are infected.
“More population studies including the level of immune protection and symptoms among people infected with Omicron are needed to fully establish the global impact of Omicron to the control of COVID-19 pandemic.”
The main limitation of this work is that it was conducted in vitro and using pseudotyped (made) viruses. Previous studies, however, have employed in vitro neutralization assays as a proven metric of “good correlation,” and the present vaccine literature “has established that in vitro neutralization assays are good predictors of vaccine protection efficacy and real-world vaccine effectiveness.”
As a result, the scientists believe their findings may well indicate a potential loss in vaccine protection against the novel Omicron strain.
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