Will the omicron variant require a new vaccine? An expert weighs in

A growing number of countries are reporting cases of the coronavirus' omicron variant, and many are mandating travel bans. Meanwhile, advisors to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have now endorsed drug maker Merck's pill to treat COVID-19 in high-risk adults. All of this comes as public health officials are emphasizing the need for global cooperation. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    More and more countries are reporting cases of COVID-19's Omicron variant tonight, and more are mandating travel bans.

    At the same time, advisers to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have now endorsed the Merck company's pill to treat the virus in high-risk adults. All of this comes as public health officials are emphasizing the need for global cooperation.

    Nick Schifrin begins our coverage.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, from European capitals where Omicron spread earlier than previously thought, to Eastern Africa, where health workers rushed to administer mRNA vaccines, the world wrestled with worry.

    Kelvin Biwott, Resident of Nairobi: I overheard of the fears about the Omicron variant, which is ravaging the world, so I decided to come for the jab.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Many countries aren't relying only on jabs. At least 56 have imposed Omicron-related travel restrictions. But more than 20 countries have detected Omicron cases, from Canada to Australia.

    Yesterday, Japan closed its borders to foreigners and increased quarantines, but today reported its first Omicron case. The World Health Organization has denounced travel bans, but, today, it also warned Omicron numbers could double or triple this week, and suggested people over 60 at high risk postpone travel.

    And Moderna warned its vaccine would likely be less effective against Omicron. Chief executive Stephane Bancel told The Financial Times: "All the scientists I have talked to say this is not going to be good."

    But U.S. officials today predicted vaccines could prove effective.

    White House COVID response coordinator Jeff Zients:

  • Jeffrey Zients, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator:

    Existing vaccines are likely to continue to provide a degree of protection against severe illness.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In London, Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited a vaccination site and urged Britons get their third shots.

    But many countries are still racing to give their first shots. Only about 10 percent of sub-Saharan Africans have received one COVID shot, less than one-sixth the rate of North America and Europe.

    Today, Secretary of State Tony Blinken reiterated the U.S. wanted to help vaccinate the world.

    Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State: We know, we know, we know that none of us will be fully safe until everyone is.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The White House says it has donated more vaccines around the world than all countries combined, including 13 million to Southern Africa. Today, the problem is not only supply.

    Dr. Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Adviser to President Biden: The logistic capability of getting vaccines into people's arms in Southern African countries and in other low-and middle-income countries is really very difficult. And, in fact, many of the doses that have been shipped have not been used.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For more on all of this, we turn to Dr. Richard Hatchett, chief executive officer of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, or CEPI, one of the leading organizations, part of the U.N.'s COVAX vaccine distribution program.

    Richard Hatchett, thank you very much. Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Today, the Netherlands announced that it had discovered Omicron variants last week well before South Africa detected it for the first time.

    What does that say about efforts to prevent this variant spread?

    Dr. Richard Hatchett, CEO, Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations: This variant has spread already around the world.

    I think, as of today, it's already on all six continents. And the news from Netherlands, in some respects, isn't terrifically surprising. I think we will begin to understand its spread over time.

    I think what we need to focus on, obviously, is Botswana in South Africa, in identifying this variant, recognizing that it has this increased mutational profile, has given the world notice and given the world time to prepare and to increase its surveillance activities.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Biden administration and other countries around the world have imposed travel bans in order to do what you just said, to increase surveillance. Are those travel bans effective?

  • Dr. Richard Hatchett:

    Travel restrictions can provide some degree of slowing of spread.

    In this case, the virus already seems to be disseminated. I think careful monitoring of travelers and the use of testing protocols before they depart and after they arrive in a new country is probably going to be a more effective way to monitor for the virus and allow travel to continue, because it's very, very costly to impose these travel bans.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Moderna's CEO today said that he did not believe the vaccines would be as effective against Omicron. Do you agree?

  • Dr. Richard Hatchett:

    I'm very concerned about it.

    Looking at the mutational pattern that we're seeing in Omicron, we have never seen such a concentration of mutations in the spike protein, which is part of the virus that binds to the cells. And it's got mutations that we know have been associated with reductions in vaccine effectiveness.

    So, I am concerned. I think it's really, really important to do the testing, do the analysis, and understand just how much vaccine effectiveness may be reduced. I think it's prudent to begin developing new vaccine constructs in case, just in case, we need to switch over from the current vaccine to another Omicron-specific vaccine.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And are the vaccine companies, are rich countries doing enough in order to accelerate that production of the vaccines you're talking about?

  • Dr. Richard Hatchett:

    Well, very fortunately, we have seen all the major vaccine manufacturing companies, Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, J&J, they're all moving quickly to develop Omicron constructs.

    In fact, Pfizer and Moderna have both announced that they think they can deliver a new Omicron-specific vaccine early in the new year. That's terrific. At CEPI, we have articulated a goal for the world to be able to develop new vaccines within 100 days.

    I think Omicron presents a real-world opportunity to see what we can do and to improve our processes.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You said something yesterday that caught a lot of headlines.

    You said that Omicron is — quote — "the chickens coming home to roost." What did you mean?

  • Dr. Richard Hatchett:

    What we think we're seeing, at least based on what we understand right now, is that this virus, this variant has emerged in countries that have had very limited access to vaccine.

    And that means that COVID has continued to circulate at high rates in these countries, which provides it opportunities to mutate. And so scientists for months have been predicting that the inequity of vaccine distribution was creating the exact kind of circumstances that would promote the emergence of new variants, potentially with the ability to evade our vaccines.

    The inequity that has characterized the global response to date has now come home to roost.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We heard Dr. Fauci today say the problem wasn't only about supply, how much rich countries are giving, but actually about problems on distribution, especially in Southern Africa.

    Is that part of the problem?

  • Dr. Richard Hatchett:

    Now the vaccine supplies are increasing. I mean, COVAX has now distributed around 575 million doses.

    And the supplies are continuing to increase. We are beginning to see challenges in countries to receive this flood of vaccine and to distribute it. And so we do need to shift our focus to supporting countries' ability to receive and dispense vaccine to their populations as rapidly as possible. That's going to be the big challenge for 2022.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And are there not also problems, especially in Southern Africa, of vaccine skepticism and widespread misinformation? How do we fight that?

  • Dr. Richard Hatchett:

    Well, that's a global problem.

    And vaccines skepticism, vaccine hesitancy has different roots in different environments. It has emerged as a major challenge to vaccinating populations sufficiently to achieve anything like herd immunity. And I think it — we have to tackle that problem. But it has many different roots that contribute to it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Dr. Richard Hatchett, thank you very much.

  • Dr. Richard Hatchett:

    Thank you, Nick.

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