Findings in a new study published by an extensive team of South African researchers, including participants from Washington, Germany, Australia, and the UK, show the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), reduces the efficacy of Pfizer’s messenger RNA vaccine by a factor of 41 in fully vaccinated individuals who do not also have natural immunity.
The findings were published on the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI) website on Dec. 7. While the Institute notes the research has been submitted as a preprint to the medRxiv server, the study does not yet appear in the server’s search function. A copy of the paper is provided on AHRI’s website.
The study set out to answer two main questions arising from Omicron’s extensive spike protein mutations and additional receptor binding domain and S2 mutations, namely, whether the spike mutations will “have considerable escape from vaccine elicited immunity” and whether the binding domain and S2 mutations could be “predicted to impact transmissibility and affinity for ACE-2.”
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Angiotensin-converting Enzyme 2 (ACE-2) receptors are the primary path both original SARS and SARS-CoV-2 use to enter and infect human cells. In the case of SARS-CoV-2, the mechanism is also prevalent in the infection of animals.
In humans, ACE-2 receptors are most prevalent in the lungs and small intestines.
The study discloses it received funding through grant monies from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and the U.S. National Institutes of Health, in addition to two South African entities.
The BMGF is both a shareholder in Pfizer and extended a “Committed Grant” to the company in the sum of more than $17 million USD in 2016 to “support development of a Group B streptococcus (GBS) vaccine for developing country access.”
Notably, in August the Foundation also provided a Committed Grant for almost $588,000 USD to Johannesburg-based Wits Health Consortium to “evaluate the effectiveness of Pfizer and J&J SARS-CoV-2 vaccines against laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 hospitalisation among risk groups targeted for vaccination.”
Additionally, the AHRI website notes itself as a member of the Wellcome Programme, which is part of the Wellcome Trust. June 6 reporting by investigative journalist team Unlimited Hangout described Wellcome Trust as an entity that has “arguably been second only to Bill Gates in its ability to influence events during the COVID-19 crisis and vaccination campaign.”
The extensive writeup chronicles the Trust’s creation of what author Whitney Webb describes as a “global health DARPA,” known as Wellcome Leap, an initiative that is host to pursuits such as engineering man-machine hybrid organs, extensive brain research on newborn children, the creation of a “tissue time machine,” and total genetic surveillance in the name of treating depression.
The study uses a small dataset, composed of 12 fully vaccinated individuals. All participants were vaccinated with the Pfizer-BioNTech BNT162b2 flavor, with six members additionally having antibodies generated from “previous infection in the first SARS-CoV-2 infection wave in South Africa where infection was with ancestral D614G virus,” and six with “no previous record of SARS-CoV-2 infection nor detectable nucleocapsid antibodies indicative of previous infection.”
14 plasma samples were taken from the 12 participants. The additional two are only described as “samples from two timepoints,” both taken from the vaccinated-only group.
The participants are aged between 41 to 68, with a median age of 57 years. The cohort was composed of four males and eight females.
Notably, while all takers were very recently vaccinated, between 10 and 33 days prior to the study, those with natural immunity had an extensive gap between date of infection and vaccination acceptance ranging between 350 and 434 days.
Date of symptom onset for the natural immunity control group was listed as between June and September of 2020.
Live humans were not infected in the study. Instead, samples of “an early passage of isolated and sequence confirmed live Omicron virus isolated in South Africa” were added to plasma drawn from blood samples taken from participants.
Firstly, the study, by comparing Omicron infection cultures between normal human cells and “a human lung cell line clone (H1299-ACE2) engineered to express the ACE2 receptor,” confirmed that despite Omicron’s receptor binding domain and S2 mutations, the variant still requires ACE-2 in order to enter human cells and begin the process of infection.
Second, using the 14 plasma samples, researchers calculated the quantity of geometric mean titers (GMT) in the FRNT50 reciprocal plasma dilution required to reach a 50 percent reduction in infection foci, and compared these results between Omicron and the vanilla mutation that transformed original SARS into SARS-CoV-2.
The study was able to estimate a GMT figure of 1321 for vanilla COVID versus 32 for Omicron, an efficacy reduction calculated out to 41.4 fold by the study using the Wilcoxon Rank Sum Test.
Researchers noted that while Omicron’s apparent ability to escape Pfizer vaccine antibodies was startling, they framed the matter in the context that “escape was incomplete” because “5 of the participants, all previously infected,” showed “relatively high neutralization titers with Omicron.”
The study did not elaborate further on the GMT figures for the 5 of 6 test subjects with natural immunity who displayed this phenomenon.
Light and context
A well known August preprint study from Israel may provide significant underlying context for the findings. The study examined anonymized health records from one of the country’s four mandatory healthcare providers, and found that takers of the Pfizer vaccine were at 27 times greater risk of symptomatic breakthrough infection than the unvaccinated with natural immunity were for reinfection.
Raw data in this segment was compelling:
- 46,035 matches
- 748 SARS-CoV-2 positive PCR tests
- 640 breakthrough tests in the vaccinated group
- 108 reinfected tests in the previously infected group
- 552 SARS-CoV-2 symptomatic infections
- 484 symptomatic breakthroughs in the vaccinated group
- 68 symptomatic reinfections in the previously infected group
- 21 vaccinated group hospitalizations
- 4 previously infected group hospitalizations
- 0 deaths
However, the study also conducted a third set of data analysis, comparing the outcomes of those with previous infection only versus those with natural immunity and a single booster of Pfizer’s vaccine.
The results of the comparison were better for the group who accepted a booster, albeit barely. The study found only a 0.53 times difference between the two groups for reinfection and stated that “we could not demonstrate significance in our cohort.”
Raw data for the natural immunity versus booster comparison was as follows:
- 14,029 matches
- 57 SARS-CoV-2 positive PCR tests
- 37 reinfected tests in the previously infected group
- 20 reinfected tests in the previously infected and vaccinated group
- 39 SARS-CoV-2 symptomatic infections
- 23 symptomatic reinfections in the previously infected group
- 16 symptomatic reinfections in the previously infected and vaccinated group
- 1 previously infected group hospitalization
- 0 previously infected and vaccinated group hospitalization
- 0 deaths
Despite the fact that the South African study found Omicron evaded Pfizer’s vaccine in all but those with natural exposure to vanilla SARS-CoV-2 nearly a year ago, establishment media nonetheless framed the findings in a curious light.
In the study, the only reference for the word “booster” is in the following paragraph, “Previous infection, followed by vaccination or booster is likely to increase the neutralization level and likely confer protection from severe disease in Omicron infection.”
However, an article published by the New York Times titled Pfizer’s Vaccine Provides Some Protection Against Omicron, a Lab Study Suggests is one such instance of editorial creativity.
In the second paragraph of the article, the Times conflated the findings to encourage booster injections, “Laboratory experiments found that Omicron seems to dull the power of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, but also hinted that people who have received a booster shot might be better protected.”
While the article conceded that the study “found that antibodies produced by vaccinated people were much less successful” at keeping Omicron at bay, and that “the data suggests that vaccinated people might be vulnerable to breakthrough infections with Omicron,” the authors stated that, “Scientists said the results were somewhat worrisome, but no cause for panic.”
The article editorialized, “But vaccines stimulate a wide-ranging immune response that involves more than just antibodies. So these experiments offer an incomplete picture of how well the vaccine protects against hospitalization or death from Omicron.”
An article published by CNN titled Omicron Coronavirus Variant Partly Evades Pfizer Vaccine’s Protection, Study Shows was similarly sly when, after summarizing the research, added the caveat: “The study does not reflect actual infection with the virus.”
The author then editorialized, “Other studies looking at immune protection against variants have shown many of the Covid-19 vaccines create very strong immune protection that provides a cushion of extra immunity — so that even if a variant escapes some of the immunity, there is plenty left to shield people from severe disease.”
Meanwhile on Twitter, UNC professor Zeynep Tufekci, who also publishes in The Atlantic and New York Times, summarized the findings to her nearly 480,000 followers as “suggests boosters will work well.”
Baylor College of Medicine Professor Peter Hotez similarly used the opportunity to sell boosters to his 250,00 followers when he said, “Given 3rd shot often provides 30-40x rise it might not be bad news, meaning not terrible.”