BioNTech co-founder Ugur Sahin said in an interview published Tuesday that while the omicron variant may result in more breakthrough cases of COVID-19, most vaccinated individuals will likely experience mild illness from contracting the strain.
Speaking to The Wall Street Journal, Sahin said, "Our message is: Don’t freak out, the plan remains the same: Speed up the administration of a third booster shot."
Although no studies on the new variant have been released yet, Sahin said he believed vaccinated people will still be protected from severe illness based on how the vaccine he helped develop has protected against past variants that are more contagious.
As an example, Sahin pointed to the delta variant. It has been shown to infect vaccinated individuals at a higher rate than previous strains, but immunized people have still been shown to be protected against severe cases of the coronavirus.
BioNTech's vaccine, which was produced alongside Pfizer, works by creating antibodies that prevent infection from occurring in the first place as well as T lymphocytes, white blood cells that attack cells in the body that have already been infected. According to Sahin, even if the virus evades antibodies, it should still be vulnerable to T lymphocytes.
“Our belief [that the vaccines work against omicron] is rooted in science: If a virus achieves immune escape, it achieves it against antibodies, but there is the second level of immune response that protects from severe disease — the T-cells,” said the immunologist. “Even as an escape variant, the virus will hardly be able to completely evade the T-cells.”
Sahin's remarks follow comments from Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, who said he had "a very high level of confidence" that Pfizer's oral COVID-19 treatment will be effective against the omicron variant.
Other health experts have hypothesized that fully vaccinated individuals who receive a booster dose of a COVID-19 vaccine will be protected against the omicron variant.