Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said Wednesday that people might need a fourth Covid-19 shot sooner than expected after preliminary research shows the new omicron variant can undermine protective antibodies generated by the vaccine the company developed with BioNTech.
Pfizer and BioNTech released results from an initial lab study Wednesday morning that showed a third shot is effective at fighting the omicron variant, while the initial two-dose vaccination series dropped significantly in its ability to protect against the new strain. However, the two-dose series likely still offers protection against getting severely sick from omicron, the companies said.
Bourla noted that a preliminary study by the company was based on a synthetic, lab-created copy of the variant and more data is needed from tests against the real virus. Those real-world results will be more accurate and are expected in the next two weeks, the Pfizer CEO said.
“When we see real-world data, will determine if the omicron is well covered by the third dose and for how long. And the second point, I think we will need a fourth dose,” Bourla told CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”
Bourla previously projected that a fourth shot would be needed 12 months after the third dose. “With omicron we need to wait and see because we have very little information. We may need it faster,” he said.
The Pfizer CEO said what’s most important right now is to roll out third doses for the winter. Public health officials are worried about a spike in Covid infections as people gather more indoors to escape the cold.
“A third dose will give very good protection I believe,” Bourla said. He also said that treatments such as Pfizer’s oral antiviral pill, Paxlovid, will help prevent hospitalizations and control Covid during the winter.
Pfizer submitted its application to the Food and Drug Administration last month for emergency authorization of the pill. Bourla told CNBC on Wednesday that Pfizer will have the full results from clinical trials in days, and he expects the pill to demonstrate an 89% reduction in hospitalization and death as it did in interim data last month.
The Pfizer CEO said the company has already shipped pills to the U.S. and can begin rolling out the product this month if the FDA approves it for emergency use. President Joe Biden said last month that the U.S. has bought 10 million courses with delivery slated to start by year-end.
Bourla said he’s confident the Pfizer pill will remain effective against omicron, because it targets a different part of the virus, an enzyme used for replication, that is not as susceptible to mutations. The vaccines target the spike protein that the virus uses to invade human cells. The spike protein has mutated repeatedly over the course of the pandemic.
Pfizer and BioNTech can develop a vaccine that specifically targets omicron by March 2022 should that prove necessary, Bourla said. He said he anticipates new variants to emerge in the future, and the company is monitoring to see if vaccine adjustments are needed.