It’s a very big deal, and has the potential to have a powerful effect on people’s lives in Africa, where Africa is in the greatest need for an effective vaccine.
Of all the vaccines funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Omicron has the best data available for showing how effective it is.
The first 804 people who got the vaccine in test trials lived longer. The average age at death was 73. That’s an improvement of seven years, not counting two deaths and the trauma of car crashes.
It’s important to remember that people living in Africa die much younger than people in developed countries. Malaria, pneumonia, and diarrhoea are the top three causes of death in children under five. If we can find a vaccine to prevent a third of these diseases, that will make a huge difference to the lives of young African children. And that’s exactly what the vaccine the Omicron variant is expected to bring.
This finding was announced at the 20th African Vaccine Initiative symposium in Addis Ababa on Monday. Yesterday’s presentation at the conference included the first case in Africa of people surviving after having a randomised trial of the Omicron vaccine.
Some were under a year old and went on to live a year longer than people who had just gotten a dose of the current mainstay vaccine. In another trial, group 1 was given either the standard-of-care, full-strength version of the GlaxoSmithKline malaria vaccine PEPFAR (containing 70 percent silver ions, or radium), or the so-called Omicron variant. Here’s the abstract of the results:
“Compared with the pregnant control and unvaccinated group, those receiving Omicron vaccine had a 7-year survival advantage as well as a reduced chance of dying from malaria, preterm birth, infant mortality, and HIV (HDF). All groups showed a meaningful effect on achieving child survival and improvement in maternal health. This was shown by decreasing the mortality rates of children under five with the Omicron vaccine (reduced from 2.3 per 1000 live births to 1.6 per 1000 live births, and from 5 per 1000 live births to 1.7 per 1000 live births at 0-12 months, for the infant group) and reducing the preterm birth rates (reduced from 16.5 per 1000 live births to 6.6 per 1000 live births).”
Also at the conference yesterday, Charlie Kimber of Pfizer reported on a clinical trial of a new vaccine against polio in Ghana, which found that the vaccine was 91 percent effective when given only once, and that it is almost 100 percent effective when given as a series of three doses.
As for the Omicron variant, it’s the form that’s registered and going to Africa. What’s important about this is the threat this form poses to patients getting an injection. The meaning of these results is that if you only give people this type of vaccine, they have a higher chance of dying during the course of treatment. That’s the scary thing for doctors because if you don’t find a quick way to give them an “off label” injection, the vaccine won’t work for most people, because their bodies are unable to handle the increase in the immune system. As Patrick Zane from Human Command Centre for Vaccines and Immunology in the United States writes in a commentary at the Eberhard Gareis vaccine Journal:
“…It should be noted that off-label medicines are not approved by any government agency before providing on-label medication to individuals who have been refused on suspicion of a response being incorrect. As a result, the initial response to this vaccine type will almost certainly exceed the number of volunteers who were tested. …Prescriptive decisions will then be made upon seeing the optimal dose, vaccine campaign schedule, and route of administration.”
For those companies investing millions in vaccines for Africa, this should be a very, very good sign.
The drug maker Sanofi-Aventis is still mulling how to get an off-label injection to Africa. The Omicron vaccine itself will need to go through a routine approval process before getting to Africa. And there’s a fair chance that without the reporting of death benefits, a company may not want to report them.
Until then, it’s worth wondering what will happen to those people who have been receiving the test vaccine in Zimbabwe. The company only pays $2 a shot.
Photo: A boy receives a polio vaccine in the West Bank town of Jenin on December 12, 2016. Photo credit: Muhammed Muheisen/AP.