EU exploring potential ‘Omicron-specific’ vaccine, says Taoiseach

Manufacturers of mRNA vaccines can tweak them to cope with virus mutations, says Martin

The European Union’s vaccine acquisition team is co-ordinating with pharmaceutical companies to secure supplies of a potential “Omicron-specific” vaccine, Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said.

"The commission are looking at working with the pharmaceutical companies now, for example, on an Omicron-specific vaccine. That's on the cards, that's on the agenda," Mr Martin told journalists in Brussels ahead of a meeting of EU national leaders.

He added that manufacturers of mRNA vaccines, like Pfizer and Moderna, were able to tweak their vaccines to cope with mutations in the virus.

“Certainly the commission are looking at that, and the steering board has been engaging with the pharmaceuticals,” Mr Martin said. “We do know the pharmaceuticals, particularly mRNA manufacturers have the capacity to create formulations that respond to particular variants. And my understanding is that that discussion is ongoing in respect of Omicron.”

The EU’s existing vaccine contracts include agreements that manufacturers would update vaccines if needed.

Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday that new updated vaccines "could even be ready by March or April and be approved swiftly" by the European Medicines Agency.

Mr Martin added that encouraging results from trials for anti-viral pills to treat Covid-19 infections were a sign of hope for the coming year, after Pfizer reported its drug was almost 90 per cent effective against severe infection.

“I think this is another plus another positive for 2022, which is why I’m more hopeful in terms of looking for the next 12 months,” Mr Martin said. But he warned that the rapidly-spreading new variant meant a “significant wave” was coming. “We’re in a different phase, a very significant wave coming. And I think we have to be intelligent in terms of how we combat that,” Mr Martin said.

Travel co-ordination

The national leaders of the 27 EU member states are holding discussions on how to co-ordinate on travel rules and Covid-19 vaccine boosters as they meet in Brussels on Thursday. Italy, Portugal, and Ireland have introduced some additional testing requirements for incoming travellers from the EU, including for vaccinated people, and France is reportedly considering following suit. This has raised concerns about impediments to free movement within the bloc.

"The fact is if we have new individual national regulations, how should we convince people to get vaccinated?" Luxembourg prime minister Xavier Bettel said to journalists.

“If you make no difference between vaccinated non-vaccinated people, because they need a PCR test, I think it’s the wrong idea.”

Leaders will attempt to find consensus on the expiry time of vaccination status in Covid-19 certificates and the time period for booster shots to be required.

France has set its Covid-19 certificates to expire seven months after the second dose, requiring citizens to take a booster shot, while Greece has said the expiry time will be even briefer.

Mr Bettel said he favoured a nine-month expiry, and that a consensus EU period needed to be agreed on “today”.

“I hope we will be able to agree on nine months, and not soon — today. And also about when the booster has to be done,” he told journalists. “What is very important on the agenda today is that we decide about how long the Covid certificate is valid, because if it will be five months, six months, seven months, eight months, nine months, it’s a disaster.”

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O'Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times