WHO likely to okay use of Omicron-specific booster: Report

New Delhi: The World Health Organisation is likely to recommend an Omicron-specific booster dose, amid a fresh wave of infection due to the highly mutated Covid variant seen in several countries, including India, the UK, the US, according to a media report.

The move marks a significant shift in the thinking of the global health agency, which has so far recommended against the use of Covid boosters because thousands, including healthcare workers, in many low-income countries are yet to receive a single shot.

The preliminary advice, as described by two people with knowledge of the matter and contained in documents seen by the Financial Times, comes from the WHO technical group.

The heavily infectious Omicron variant, which emerged late last year, is known to evade vaccine-induced immunity. Further, efficacy of existing vaccines and booster doses have shown to wane quickly, especially when pitted against Omicron.

While the WHO did not respond to questions, it said it was “aware” that a statement from the technical group was “forthcoming”, the report said.

The real-world policy recommendation by the WHO will be made once safety and other data becomes available for variant-specific vaccines, the people with knowledge of the matter were quoted as saying.

While Moderna, Pfizer and some others have brought out Omicron-specific boosters, no variant-specific vaccine is yet on the market.

Moderna said last week its bivalent booster elicited increased antibodies and was safe and well tolerated. And the European Medicines Agency this week began a rolling review of the BioNTech/Pfizer variant-specific vaccine.

The WHO advice “is a signal to the industry to develop vaccines that broaden the immune response in addition to maintaining protection against severe disease”, one of the people with knowledge of the matter said. “It’s only mRNA vaccines for now, so supplies will be limited,” the report said.

Based on the data available, the WHO estimates that an Omicron-specific booster would elicit “greater breadth” in the immune response.

However, the third doses of existing vaccines would still be used effectively.

“The relative benefit of these (variant) specific vaccines versus their cost is unknown,” the person was quoted as saying. “(We) need to be careful that people don’t think these are superior to existing vaccines.”

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