China confident in curbing Omicron as vaccine firms sprint for breakthroughs
Published: Dec 12, 2021 09:00 PM
A staff member checks the packaging of the Sinopharm vaccines in Beijing, capital of China, May 31, 2021.(Photo: Xinhua)

A staff member checks the packaging of the Sinopharm vaccines in Beijing, capital of China, May 31, 2021.(Photo: Xinhua)

Vaccine producers and research institutes in China, including the country's two leading manufacturers Sinopharm and Sinovac, as well as researchers at the University of Hong Kong, said they are making major progress in studying the Omicron variant, merely half a month after the WHO defined the new mutant as "a variant of concern."

Chinese epidemiologists called for joint efforts globally on the studies of vaccines, antibodies and medicines against the little-understood Omicron variant. Meanwhile, experts expressed confidence in China's ability to fend off the mutant as it will only take two months to develop Omicron-targeted vaccines if booster shots lose their efficacy.

Sinovac said on Saturday that it launched research on Omicron after obtaining the variant from authorities and researchers in Hong Kong. 

A research team led by Yuen Kwok-yung at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), successfully isolated the Omicron variant on November 29, the first research team in Asia to have done this. 

The mutated strain isolated by Yuen's team was delivered to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday, to help the Chinese mainland speed up follow-up research and vaccine development, Wu Guizhen, a chief expert from the National Institute for Viral Disease Control and Prevention, told the Global Times.

Another vaccine giant in China, Sinopharm, said on Thursday that its subsidiary, the China National Biotec Group, has mapped out three technical routes in the research and development of vaccines against the Omicron strain.

In addition to vaccines, China's first COVID-specific drug, jointly developed by Tsinghua University, the Third People's Hospital of Shenzhen and Brii Biosciences, maintained neutralizing activity against the Omicron variant, the company said on Sunday.

"There is still little known about the variant in terms of the spread of the disease, its pathogenesis, and the early pathological and physiological development after infections," said China's top respiratory expert Zhong Nanshan on Saturday, calling for joint efforts both at home and abroad on the study of related vaccines, antibodies and medicines. 

A latest study carried out by Peking University suggested that at least 85 percent of the neutralizing antibodies were found to have been escaped by Omicron. Similar results of this feature of the variant were also evident in another study by HKU, which showed a significant reduction in virus neutralizing ability of the BioNTech vaccine against the new variant by 32 times or more. 

Chinese experts, however, expressed confidence in tackling the new challenge. Tao Lina, a Shanghai-based vaccine expert, told the Global Times on Sunday that booster shots will play a vital role in increasing the concentration of neutralizing antibodies against the SARS-CoV-2, and even if the Omicron variant escapes antibodies, the high concentration will still ensure the vaccine's efficacy.

Zhong also stressed the importance of booster shots, seen from real-world data that showed the protection of symptomatic cases increasing from 56 percent to 80 percent after a third dose.

China's leading infectious disease specialist Zhang Wenhong said on Sunday that China has sufficient technical capability to deal with Omicron, listing three possible routes of future transmission, with the worst having strong transmission and toxicity, where booster shots would prove ineffective. 

"If such a scenario happens, vaccines targeting multiple types of COVID-19 variants can come into play, and China in this regard has an ability to develop such products in as little as two months," Tao said.