Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, speaks after attending a press conference to monitor the production of the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine at the factory of the US pharmaceutical company Pfizer in Puurs, Belgium, on April 23, 2021.
John Thys | Swimming pool | Reuters
Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, 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 having something that is spreading quickly is good news,” Bourla told the Wall Street Journal during an interview at the newspaper’s CEO Council Summit. “Rapid spreading means that it will be in billions of people and another mutation could come. You don’t want that.”
Dr. White House senior medical advisor Anthony Fauci said reports over the weekend from South Africa suggest Omicron is not as serious as initially feared.
The South African Medical Research Council said in a report released Saturday that most patients admitted to hospital in Pretoria with Covid did not need supplemental oxygen. The report also found that many patients were admitted for other medical reasons and then found to be infected with Covid.
Bourla warned that it was currently difficult to draw any definitive conclusions from the wave of infections in South Africa. Only 5% of South Africans are over 60 years old, and younger people usually have milder cases of Covid. Many people in South Africa are also HIV positive, which would likely lead to a more severe illness from Covid, he said.
Pfizer’s CEO said he expected the number of confirmed Omicron cases to rise from dozens to millions in the next few weeks.
“We will have a good understanding of exactly what this means for clinical manifestation by the end of the year,” said Bourla.
Pfizer can develop a vaccine against Omicron by March 2022, Bourla said, but it’s not yet clear whether a new vaccine is needed. It will be a few more weeks before the current vaccines offer sufficient protection against the variant, he said.
Bourla said Pfizer is confident that its oral antiviral drug, Paxlovid, will fight Omicron and every other variant of the virus that has appeared to date. The pill blocks an enzyme that the virus needs to replicate, called a protease.
Most of the virus’s mutations so far have occurred in the spike protein, the mechanism by which it attaches to human cells, Bourla said. Vaccines and antibody treatments targeting the spike protein may need to be updated if mutations appear in this part of the virus, he said.
However, it’s much harder for the virus to mutate so that it can live without the protease enzyme that paxlovid is targeting, he said.
“It is very difficult for the virus to create a strain that can live without this protease,” said Bourla. “It’s not impossible. It’s very difficult.”
Bourla doesn’t expect Covid to be completely eliminated anytime soon, but said society will look at the virus like seasonal flu as more people are vaccinated and more effective treatments come onto the market.
“Once we get people vaccinated, once we take politics out of the equation – that’s the little problem,” Bourla said, noting that society will never get 100% vaccination. “Unfortunately, that’s why treatments are needed. But we can live normal lives. Normal life means that you can go to restaurants and not have to wear masks and suffocate every day.”
Bourla said he expected more normality in the next year, “without a variant that changes everything”.
“I think we were well on the way to getting things under control by the middle of next year,” he said.