New vaccine against Omicron variant likely needed: research group CEO
As the world is facing a "tidal wave" of new Omicron cases, manufacturers will likely have to develop a new generation of vaccines and reconfigure their production facilities, Rasmus Bech Hansen, CEO of Airfinity, a London-based global health intelligence and analytics provider, told Xinhua.
"It's pretty clear that the world can expect a tidal wave of new infections. How much of that translates into hospitalizations and mortality is still unknown. It seems that it's either milder or the existing levels of protection do give some protection. But just the sheer number of infections is highly concerning," said Hansen during an online interview.
"Many of the large vaccine producers are a little bit split over this. Pfizer has come out and argued that the current vaccines are good enough. Moderna has said we need a new generation of vaccines. Health authorities around the world haven't really come to a conclusion, it's a bit of a wait and see," said Hansen.
However, Hansen stressed that the need for the development of a new vaccine could trigger fresh production bottlenecks.
"We basically would have to take all the existing factories and reconfigure those against a new variant. It won't go from zero to 1 billion a month in day one. You'd take 100 days and then scale up the capacity," he said.
"To put it very bluntly, if we need a new generation of Omicron vaccine, I don't think there's going to be enough vaccines according to our numbers for the world next year," he added.
Hansen urged the need for more international collaboration and said that China could play a crucial part as a manufacturer of vaccines as well as in COVID-19 treatments.
"China has played a really important role as a producer of vaccines and has emerged as the world's largest producer. It's fantastic to see the innovation and the vaccine production coming out of China. I think China could play a role in many other areas, in the treatment space, testing, protection of variants, and supporting countries around the world with that," he noted.
Ramping up production
Hansen stressed that the continuing challenge for the world is to avoid production and supply disruptions of current vaccination programs.
"It is remarkable to see the scale of production we've witnessed this year. Currently, the world is producing around a billion vaccines a month. That scaled up from hardly anything at the beginning of the year."
"When we look into 2022, we expect that capacity of 1 billion vaccines monthly to continue and even accelerate a little bit. If we're continuing with the current generation of vaccines, we can reach as much as 23 billion at the end of next year, which basically means that there will be enough vaccines for the world even with booster shots," he said.
The World Health Organization has warned that the Omicron variant can spread more rapidly than previous variants and could have a major impact on the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It's still too early days. But if we need a new vaccine, then we're starting all over again. It will take 100 days to reconfigure and then you have to scale up production," Hansen said.
"Our best-case estimate is then we'll have around half the number of vaccines next year if we need a new generation as all of these production facilities need to be reconfigured," he added.
The executive urged the COVAX, the global initiative aimed at accelerating the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines, to continue to support the fair and equitable access to new vaccines around the world along with international partners.
Asked about whether production should not rather take place locally to avoid "vaccine nationalism," Hansen said high yielding factories would be more efficient in the manufacturing and distribution process.
"I think the solution really is to scale up the production capacity. I'm a little bit more skeptical on the initiatives of local vaccine production because when we model that and look at the numbers, it is not going to have a big impact in 2022. It's more like 2023 and 2024. And you know, the pandemic is raging right now," he said.
Another major problem is the short shelf-life of vaccines, with several countries facing challenges with utilizing all available doses before their expiry date.
Airfinity has estimated that more than 100 million vaccines are set to expire by the end of the year and would need to be redistributed immediately. Meanwhile, Hansen warned that the roll-out capacity in middle and low-income countries is still lacking.
"There is a risk that these vaccines get stuck in airports and not get distributed. It's also because the deliveries have been quite uneven. Until we have more regular deliveries from COVAX and others, we are sadly going to see some of these examples of doses going to waste," he warned.