Omicron: EU states urged to boost genome sequencing as Ireland lags behind

Moderna chief warns existing vaccines will struggle with latest coronavirus variant

EMA chief Emer Cooke, speaking to MEPs, says the regulator could approve Covid-19 vaccines that have been adapted to target the new Omicron coronavirus variant within three to four months if needed. Video: Reuters

 

The European Union’s health commissioner has urged governments to boost efforts to detect coronavirus mutations, as data shows Ireland is one of seven EU member states that did not carry out sufficient levels of genome sequencing of Covid-19 cases in the first half of November.

In a letter to health ministers across the EU, Stella Kyriakides said “certain member states lag behind considerably” in genome sequencing, which analyses cases of the virus and compares them with other cases to identify any changes.

Data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) showed that, in the first half of November, Ireland, Finland, Greece, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Cyprus and Lithuania lagged behind what Ms Kyriakides describes as a “crucial dimension” of slowing the spread of Covid-19.

Ireland drastically reduced the proportion of cases sent for genetic sequencing in recent months, and has yet to confirm a case of the latest variant, Omicron, despite Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly saying it was “likely” in the country.

The variant first found in southern Africa has now been identified in several European countries, but it is hard to track its spread as various countries do not carry out sufficient genome sequencing of positive samples.

In her letter, Ms Kyriakides urged all member states to do more.

Genomic sequencing decodes genes in the Sars-CoV-2 genome to tell scientists which variant might be present, allowing them to monitor mutations and learn more about the virus.

Vaccines

Ms Kyriakides also urged ministers to vaccinate faster and offer boosters urgently.

“Already faced with a challenging winter due to the high transmissibility of the Delta variant . . . we may now experience further or additional pressures because of the appearance of the Omicron variant,” she wrote.

Earlier on Tuesday, the chief executive of vaccine-maker Moderna warned that the plethora of mutations in the Omicron variant would likely help it evade protection provided by existing vaccines, making it necessary to develop new immunisations.

Stephane Bancel told the Financial Times it may take months for pharmaceutical companies to develop and deploy updated immunisations that they can deliver in large numbers.

“There is no world, I think, where [the effectiveness] is the same level . . . we had with [the] Delta [variant],” Mr Bancel said.

The current vaccines from companies including Moderna, Pfizer and BioNTech, AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson are all able to help reduce the risk of severe infection and death from the previous strains of the virus, though they work less well against the more transmissible Delta variant.

Research is still under way to determine if Omicron causes the same level of illness as older versions of the virus, if it can evade protection from vaccines and previous infections, and if it will be able to outcompete the existing strains as the pathogen continues to circulate throughout the world.

Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla said his company will be ready with a vaccine targeting Omicron in 100 days, should it be necessary.

International picture

Japan confirmed its first case of the Omicron coronavirus variant on Tuesday after a test on a visitor who recently arrived from Namibia in southern Africa.

Chief cabinet secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said the man in his 30s tested positive on arrival at an airport on Sunday, was isolated and is being treated in hospital. A genome analysis confirmed that he was infected with the new variant.

Japan announced on Monday that it will ban all foreign visitors from Tuesday as an emergency precaution against the variant.

The World Health Organisation warned on Monday that the global risk from the Omicron variant is “very high” based on early evidence, saying it could lead to surges with “severe consequences”.

In Australia, the New South Wales (NSW) government introduced new testing measures and increased fines for returned travellers who breach new Omicron isolation rules, hours after the country’s prime minister Scott Morrison urged premiers to “not get spooked” by the new variant.

On Tuesday evening, as NSW Health confirmed the Omicron strain had been detected in a fifth returned traveller in the state, premier Dominic Perrottet announced fines for breaching the 72-hour home-isolation requirement, introduced in response to the variant, would rise to 5,000 AUD, up from 1,000 AUD.

Additionally, all returned travellers – who are already required to get a negative PCR test in order to finish their three-day home quarantine – will now also be required to get an additional PCR test six days after arriving in the state and three days after finishing their isolation.

President of the United States Joe Biden has cautioned Americans against panicking, urging them to instead get vaccinated or have an extra shot.

“This variant is a cause for concern. Not a cause for panic,” Mr Biden said in remarks at the White House after a private briefing from his health advisers. He said the administration doesn’t yet believe new formulations of coronavirus vaccines will be necessary but that it is already working with Pfizer and Moderna on contingency plans.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expanded its recommendation for booster vaccines to all adults as cases top 262 million and deaths pass 5.2 million. – Reuters