The sublime cynicism of the press for "Omicron-specific" Covid vaccines

Since May, public health authorities and media outlets have started pushing a new generation of mRNA Covid booster shots, theoretically reformulated specifically against the Omicron variant.

The new jabs supposedly fix the minor fact that the original mRNA jabs have proven all-but-useless against Omicron - which, at least for now, is the only variant of Sars-Cov-2 left outside labs. (Details, details.)

As has happened so many times in the last two years, the reporting around the Omicron boosters has been weirdly monochromatic. Practically every major news outlet parrots the talking points that Pfizer and Moderna offered when they reported results from their Omicron booster clinical trials: the boosters produce a stronger “immune response” and more “Omicron-specific antibodies” than the original shot.

Pfizer and Moderna aren’t lying.

Not exactly.

What they’re saying about the Omicron boosters is technically true. It’s also meaningless - as the companies, the public health bureaucrats, and everyone else playing this shell game well know. (Except, maybe, the reporters. Never overestimate their understanding.)

Why?

The mRNA shots work by causing cells to produce the coronavirus spike protein, the part of the virus that attaches to receptors on the surface of our cells. Our immune systems then recognize the spike and make antibodies against it. Those antibodies will defeat the actual Sars-Cov-2 virus when people are exposed to it, preventing vaccinated people from being infected.

Unfortunately, the Omicron variant of Sars-Cov-2 has mutated so that its spike protein has a significantly different structure than the original variant of the virus. Thus the antibodies the first-generation mRNA vaccine causes us to make don’t block it very well, and the shot provides little if any protection against Omicron infection. (Why the virus has mutated in this way is one of the many questions that the vaccine fanatics would prefer no one ask, so put it aside for now.)

Pfizer and Moderna claim they have the answer to this problem - new jabs containing mRNA that will cause cells to make the Omicron spike protein, rather than the original protein. Then - theoretically - our immune systems will respond by making antibodies that will attach more strongly to the Omicron spike, providing new and stronger protection against Omicron.

Sure enough, when Pfizer and Moderna ran clinical trials comparing their Omicron mRNA boosters to boosters using the original mRNA, they found that the Omicron mRNA boosters produced higher levels of Omicron antibodies.

Yay! Success.

Only not really.

Why?

Remember, the mRNA shots are particularly ill-suited to Omicron. Numerous studies have shown that infection protection provided by the original two dose regimen falls to zero, if not below, within months.

For example, this paper in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that the Pfizer shots offered 9 percent protection against Omicron after six months (a little below the 95 percent protection Pfizer reported in its pivotal clinical trial). A booster briefly raises protection, but within a couple of months it is again plunging toward zero.

For Omicron-specific boosters to make a real difference, they would have to rewrite our immune response completely.

Unfortunately, the original mRNA shots appear to dominate the immune response even after people receive an Omicron-specific booster. Even after receiving an Omicron booster, people make far fewer Omicron antibodies than they made to the wild-type spike when they received the original two doses of the vaccine.

It is unclear what the companies or anyone else can do about this problem, which is called immune imprinting or original antigenic sin and appears particularly acute with the mRNA vaccines.

Second, while the mRNA shots initially cause the body to make very high levels of antibodies to the coronavirus, those antibodies wane fast. That’s why the protection from infection that the original shot offered against the original Sars-Cov-2 cratered within a few months - before Omicron even existed.

Pfizer reported that an Omicron-specific shot with 30 micrograms of mRNA, the same amount in the original dose, caused recipients to make only about 2.2 times as many antibodies capable of destroying Omicron as the original mRNA booster did. Given how quickly antibodies wane, that result probably translates into at most a month of extra protection compared to what the original boosters offer.

In other words, the Omicron-specific boosters do nothing to fix the fundamental problems with the mRNA shots (to say nothing the risk of that we are running with repeated dosing of this potent biotechnology on a schedule much faster than anyone predicted).

No, Omicron boosters are nothing more than a slightly repackaged and updated version of the same crummy product Pfizer and Moderna have sold for 18 months. Consumer product companies do this all the time. Pharmaceutical companies aren’t supposed to, though, and if they tried, the Food and Drug Administration was supposed to stop them.

At least it used to be.

(It’s still a Kit-Kat:)

The scientists at the FDA and National Institutes of Health are not complete idiots. (Those at the Centers for Disease Control may well be.) They are well aware of the game the companies are playing here and the reality that Omicron boosters are a tiny improvement at best.

But they also know that demand for mRNA jabs has cratered and that nearly everyone is now aware that the shots do not work against Omicron. If they aren’t going to admit defeat after $100 billion and one billion-plus people injected with mRNA, they need something - anything - that will convince people to take another shot. And they don’t seem ready to admit defeat, not yet.

Thus boosters.

The booster push has already had one crucial benefit, though - it has ended the six-month plunge in the stock prices of Moderna and BioNTech.

Success!