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Pfizer and Moderna are testing COVID vaccines specifically for omicron

CNET logo CNET 1/27/2022 Jessica Rendall
Sarah Tew/CNET © Provided by CNET Sarah Tew/CNET

Pfizer and partner BioNTech have started testing a COVID-19 vaccine that specifically targets the omicron variant, the companies said Tuesday. One day later, Moderna also announced the start of a clinical trial to study its omicron-specific booster. 

The moves are part of a larger conversation about whether we'll need variant-specific COVID-19 vaccines as time goes on.

"Staying vigilant against the virus requires us to identify new approaches for people to maintain a high level of protection," Pfizer's head of vaccine research and development, Kathrin Jansen, said in a news release. Jansen added that developing and investigating variant-based vaccines is "essential in our efforts towards this goal."

Pfizer's trial includes up to 1,420 adults in three groups. One group is made up of people who originally got two doses of Pfizer's general COVID-19 vaccine, the second group is people who had three doses, and the third group is people who didn't get any doses. People in the different groups will get a different number of doses of Pfizer's omicron-focused vaccine.

Moderna's study will include about 600 participants. One group will receive the omicron booster after only two doses of the regular vaccine, and the other group will get the new booster after having received two regular doses, plus the currently authorized booster.


Video: Pfizer targets Omicron variant with new vaccine trial (CBS News)

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Though the original COVID vaccines remain effective against severe disease and death from COVID-19, they're not as effective at preventing infection caused by the new omicron variant. To restore the protection, boosters or an extra dose of COVID-19 vaccine are recommended for everyone age 12 and up by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And recent data shows just how well that's working. When the omicron variant was emerging in the US in late 2021, adults who received a booster shot were five times less likely to be infected compared with unvaccinated adults. Third doses or boosters of Pfizer or Moderna were also 90% effective at preventing hospitalization with COVID-19 when omicron was emerging, a recent report from the CDC found.

Pfizer's and Moderna's omicron shots aren't available yet. Johnson & Johnson has said it will move ahead with efforts on a variant-specific vaccine if needed. 

Even if a vaccine designed for the omicron variant does prove effective and safe, some health experts have favored the idea of a universal COVID-19 vaccine over variant-specific shots, saying variant-focused vaccines require more upkeep and are harder to implement in countries with poor vaccine access. 

One vaccine that's showing promise and sparking interest is a pan-coronavirus vaccine developed by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, which is designed to target future strains. 

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