Former FDA chief talks timetable on Omicron-specific vaccine -- with hope we never need it

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Early indications from South Africa where the Omicron variant of COVID-19 is driving the pandemic is that it may cause less serious illness than other forms of the virus.

That's encouraging. But we don't know whether it's going to hold up.

In the meantime, a former FDA commissioner, now living in the Triangle, talked to ABC11 about his former agency's work to approve an Omicron-specific vaccine that we hope we never need.

"I think it's a prudent step to have a vaccine ready as soon as possible that's tailored for Omicron," said Dr. Mark McClellan, director of the Duke Health Policy Center and FDA commissioner under President George. W. Bush.

Just 48 hours after the Omicron variant became an international cause for concern, President Joe Biden directed the FDA to get to work on a vaccine specifically targeting the mutation.

"The fast track looks pretty fast for the vaccines based on the mRNA technology," McClellan said referring to the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines developed in record time under then-President Donald Trump. "And it's based on the same technology that's been used before, that can be completed in a matter of less than three months."

READ MORE: UNC doctor calls Omicron variant 'distressing'

Similar to what scientists do every year with the flu vaccine, they can pull from data from the millions of people who've already been vaccinated against COVID-19 and add on a set of tests for Omicron.

"Because we've already got the basic vaccine down -- the time for testing and the time for development is way less than it would be if we were starting from scratch," McClellan said.

Back in Washington, the White House is confident more Americans are heeding the president's call to get boosted if eligible, rather than wait for Omicron shot.

"There has been an increase in boosting people over the past week plus -- 1 million people a day," said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday.

READ MORE: How severe is omicron? Expert says variant's 50 mutations could be its downfall

Experts such as McClellan say they're encouraged by the very early evidence that the current crop of vaccines may be good enough to protect against the variant.

"Omicron is more contagious, it could be more risky. We're still learning a lot about it," he said. "And that's why the advice right now really focuses on getting vaccinated or getting a booster if you're due for one."
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