Pfizer CEO Says Omicron appears to be milder but could lead to more mutations

Pfizer CEO Albert Burla speaks at a press conference following a visit to oversee the production of the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine at the US pharmaceutical company Pfizer’s plant in Puurs, Belgium on April 23, 2021.

John Tees | Swimming pool | Reuters

Pfizer CEO Albert Burla said Tuesday that the omicron variant of the virus that causes Covid-19 appears to be milder than previous strains, but also appears to spread faster and could lead to more mutations in the future.

“I don’t think it’s good news to have something that is spreading fast,” Burla told The Wall Street Journal during an interview at the newspaper’s Board of CEOs Summit. “It is spreading rapidly, which means it will happen among billions of people, and another mutation may occur. You don’t want that. “

White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said reports from South Africa over the weekend show the omicron is not as serious as initially feared, while noting that more data is needed to fully assess the risk posed by the option.

The South African Medical Research Council, in a report released on Saturday, said most patients admitted to a hospital in Pretoria with coronavirus did not need supplemental oxygen. The report also notes that many of the patients were admitted to hospital for other medical reasons and then found to have Covid.

Burla warned that it is now difficult to draw definitive conclusions from the wave of infection in South Africa. Only 5% of South Africans are over 60, and younger people usually have milder cases of Covid. However, he said many people in South Africa are also HIV-positive, which could presumably lead to more severe Covid-related illness.

The Pfizer CEO said he expects the number of confirmed omicron cases to grow from tens to millions over the next few weeks.

“We will have a good understanding, say, by the end of the year, what exactly this means for clinical manifestations,” Burla said.

Pfizer could develop a vaccine that targets omicron by March 2022, Burla said, but it’s not clear yet if there is a need for a new vaccine. It will take several weeks to determine if existing vaccines provide adequate protection against this option, he said.

Burla said Pfizer is confident that its oral antiviral drug, Paxlovid, will fight omicron and all other variants of the virus that have emerged so far. The tablet inhibits an enzyme that the virus needs to replicate, known as a protease.

Most of the virus’s mutations so far have occurred in the spiked protein, the mechanism it uses to attach itself to human cells, Burla said. Vaccines and therapies with antibodies targeting the spike protein may need updating when mutations occur in that part of the virus, he said.

However, he said, it is much more difficult for the virus to mutate so that it can live without the protease enzyme that Paxlovid is targeting.

“It is very difficult for a virus to create a strain that could live without this protease,” Burla said. “It’s not impossible. It is very difficult”.

Burla does not expect Covid to be completely eradicated anytime soon, but he said society will begin to view the virus as a seasonal flu as more people get vaccinated and more potent drugs hit the market.

“Once we get people vaccinated, once we take politics out of the equation, it’s a little problem,” Burla said, noting that society will never reach 100% vaccination. “That is why, unfortunately, treatment will be required. But we can live a normal life. A normal life means that you can go to restaurants and you don’t have to wear masks and suffocate every day. “

Burla said he expects more normality next year, “unless there is an option that changes everything.”

“I think in the middle of next year we are on a good track to get the situation under control,” he said.

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