Is It Too Late for an Omicron-Specific Vaccine?


Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla has said an Omicron-specific vaccine will be ready in March.
  • Some experts fear the vaccine will arrive too late and the focus on a fourth shot could bring about challenges in global vaccine distribution.
  • Pfizer said the company is continuing to assess the need for an Omicron vaccine as well as vaccines for other variants.

A COVID-19 vaccine that targets the Omicron variant will be ready in March 2022, according to Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla.

While the vaccine could be an important line of defense against Omicron, some experts are unsure if the timing of distribution would match public needs.

“Is this too late? When it's established with the modified Omicron vaccine, will the Omicron [surge] be already over, peaked out? We don't know.” Pei-Yong Shi, PhD, distinguished chair in innovations in molecular biology at the University of Texas Medical Branch, told Verywell.

Although Omicron case rates are falling in some regions, Shi said, a variant-specific vaccine wouldn't be out of the question. Pfizer is manufacturing the new vaccine at risk since it has yet to be approved or authorized by health authorities, but the process is necessary, he added.

"For pandemic preparedness, these exercises are definitely needed,” Shi said.

In an email to Verywell, a Pfizer spokesperson wrote that the company expects to have clinical and real-world data on the Omicron vaccine in February or March 2022, which will help inform their discussion with health authorities. At this time, it's unclear if the Omicron vaccine will be needed.

“To date, the virus has not escaped the vaccine’s protection and more than 842 million people have received the vaccine worldwide,” the Pfizer spokesperson wrote. “We’re also continuing to evaluate real-world data, including use of a fourth dose, and will continue to work with regulatory and health authorities to ensure we stay vigilant in addressing the pandemic.”

The company added that the best course of action is to first ensure that as many people as possible are fully vaccinated and boosted. Pfizer did not comment on specifics about eligible age group, dosage, or timeframe, if a fourth dose of the original series or an Omicron-specific vaccine is approved.

Preliminary data from two clinical trials in Israel showed that a fourth dose of a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine offered only partial defense against the virus.

Is a Variant-Specific Vaccine Necessary?

It's important to consider the effectiveness of the currently authorized vaccine series and booster shots when evaluating the necessity of an Omicron-specific vaccine, Shi said. Whether we should transition to a variant-specific vaccine will depend on how the real-world situation guide us, he added.

A fourth dose of the Pfizer vaccine, or a variant-specific vaccine, may raise logistical challenges in global distribution. For instance, an Omicron vaccine may be less viable in places where Omicron is not the dominant variant, Shi said.

Once the vaccine sequence is tailored to protect against Omicron, Shi said, the vaccine will protect Omicron far better than other variants like Delta. Targeting a particular strain might also require predicting which variants will circulate where and when.

"You might need to prescribe a different sequence of the vaccines to specifically target the variants over in that specific region,” Shi said, adding that the logistics may be chaotic to some extent.

Pfizer is continuing to assess the potential need for an Omicron-specific vaccine as well as vaccines against other variants, according to the company's spokesperson.

For now, Shi said that people should continue to focus on getting vaccinated and boosted to the extent possible with available vaccines. Going forward, it will be important to further study both the durability of the current booster and upcoming research on the potential Omicron-specific vaccine.

“After the Omicron surge calms down, what will be next?” Shi said. “That’s a very important question, and I don't think anybody knows at this moment.”

What This Means For You

The current methods of protection against COVID-19 and circulating variants include vaccinations, booster shots, masking, and social distancing protocols. Come March, there may also be a variant-specific vaccine to target the Omicron variant.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.