Omicron: China speeds up research into vaccines and tests amid progress on recombinant spike protein

China is accelerating research into vaccines and tests to cope with possible future Omicron variant outbreaks amid global concern about its potential damage.

Sino Biological, a Beijing-based company specialising in recombinant protein production, antibody development and the manufacture of test reagents, announced on Thursday it had developed a key part of the recombinant spike protein of the Omicron variant that could be used to test the efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines and antibodies.

Most approved Covid-19 vaccines train the immune system to recognise the spike protein of the coronavirus, which the virus uses to infect human cells by binding to the ACE2 receptor (angiotensin-converting enzyme 2).

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However, the Omicron variant has more than 30 mutations in the spike protein, including 10 in one particular part called the receptor-binding domain (RBD) that docks to the ACE2 receptor, prompting concerns that the structure change might help it dodge the immunity developed by vaccines or past infection.

Sino Biological said the company had finished molecular construction, cell culture, protein purification and quality checks in six days. It said it had successfully produced reagents of the spike protein RBD for the Omicron variant on Monday and they were available for market.

The company said reagents for other proteins of the variant would be launched soon.

Why it’s too early to panic about Omicron’s ability to evade vaccines

Mainland China has not detected any Omicron cases yet but health authorities have been on high alert and are preparing for the variant to emerge.

Vaccine companies are racing to research and develop Omicron-specific vaccines based on different technologies, said Zheng Zhongwei, a senior official with the National Health Commission who heads a group tasked with Covid-19 vaccine development in China.

The potential vaccines against Omicron – dubbed a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization – might never be used but it was necessary for China to prepare as it did with other variants of concern, Zheng told state broadcaster CCTV on Thursday.

“Our technological reserve for vaccines against variants has been in place since the emergence of the first variant of concern so a vaccine against the specific variant can be launched as soon as a new variant emerges,” Zheng said, adding that vaccine developers had prepared vaccines, or even had some in clinical trials, when the Delta variant became the global dominant strain.

“Our aim is to be prepared, but not necessarily use them unless the existing vaccine is completely ineffective. We are now also rapidly promoting the development of vaccines against the Omicron variant for all technologies so that we can be prepared and be able to use them when they are needed,” Zheng said.

There is no firm evidence yet as to whether Omicron will evade vaccine-induced immunity, but most existing shots were still expected to help reduce severe disease and death, he said.

China’s existing test kits could detect infection by the Omicron variant because their design bypassed the spike protein, according to a statement from the health commission.

Omicron spreading faster than other Covid-19 variants at ‘epicentre’

It believes its current pandemic response – preventing Covid-19 being introduced at the borders and promptly eliminating community outbreaks – will be sufficient to contain Omicron outbreaks if the variant makes its way into the country.

China is currently battling outbreaks in several provinces and cities, with 80 local Covid-19 cases reported on Thursday.

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