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'The science we did was important'

Konrad Busen
December 22, 2020

In an exclusive interview with DW's Konrad Busen, BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin explains how the firm will respond to a new virus variant and why he hasn't been vaccinated.

Ugur Sahin, CEO of BioNTech
The BioNTech CEO told DW he is confident his firm's vaccine works against the new UK COVID variantImage: Andreas Arnold/dpa/picture alliance

Dr. Ugur Sahin is co-founder and CEO of German biotech firm BioNTech. In cooperation with US pharmaceutical company Pfizer, the company is the first  to have a coronavirus vaccine approved in the EU. Sahin is a medical doctor specialized in immunotherapy and oncology. He spoke with DW's Konrad Busen about the roll-out of the vaccine, the company's response to the new, more contagious variant of COVID-19, and why the BioNTech scientists are not superheroes. 

DW's Konrad Busen: Dr. Sahin, what does the approval of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine in the EU mean for ending the pandemic?

Dr. Ugur Sahin: This is a very important step. It is the first approved vaccine in Europe. It means that we can now start vaccinating the European population. We have also got an approval in Switzerland. We are starting with the vaccinations and we also expect that it will be a benefit for the vaccinated people. For example, we hope to ease the hospitalization of elderly people already within the next few months.

We also expect that once additional vaccine suppliers will get approvals, we will be able to produce a sufficient amount of vaccine doses and be able to reach a sufficient immunization rate of between 60 to 70%. This could help us control the pandemic before the next winter of 2021-2022. 

'Likelihood is high' vaccine will work against new variant

We have seen news of this faster spreading variant – a mutation of the virus. From what you know, is your vaccine efficient against this variant?

We don't know so far, because we did not yet test. In the next two weeks, we will build a piece of this new virus variant and evaluate whether immune responses against our vaccines are able to inactivate that.

Scientifically, the likelihood is high that this is the case because even though this variant has multiple mutations, only 1% of the relevant protein has changed. That means 99% are still the same, and we know that the immune response that our vaccine use is attacking this protein from multiple sides.

So the likelihood is high that the vaccine will still work. But we will get the results in two weeks, and then we can be sure.

If you find out that you will have to develop a new vaccine against the mutated virus, how long will the development of such a vaccine take you?

Technically, we can produce a new vaccine in about six weeks. But the development would most likely take longer because we would have to show for the new vaccine against the new variant that it produces immune responses. And we would have to discuss with the authorities whether they would accept such a change of the vaccine. This is a scientific and medical discussion.

But I am confident that if there is a need for a change, that the technology which we are using, the messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, could deliver the change. 

Much has been made of the challenges of distributing your vaccine, given the ultra-low temperatures that are necessary. Do you anticipate any complications as you begin shipping the vaccine into the European Union?

Not at all. These ultra-cold temperatures are nothing new. Dry ice transportation has been known for more that 50 years. It is not cutting-edge technology. It is just a box with dry ice and there are many dry ice providers which helps us to get the task done.

The boxes are transported to the sites and then the medical personnel can take the vaccines out of the boxes and put them into a fridge. The vaccines will then be stable for five days and we know that there is a strong interest in starting the vaccinations. So this is not a real challenge.

Industrialized countries now have the vaccine, but poorer countries do not have access to that vaccine. Isn't that unjust?

No, I don't think this is true. In the last weeks, we have seen approvals in more than 40 countries, including in economically emerging countries like Mexico or states in South America. We are really interested in making our vaccines available, globally. And we are working with authorities worldwide to make sure that they can get access to our vaccines.

Let me ask you a personal question: You and your wife Dr. Özlem Türeci played such a central role in finding a solution for combating that virus. How does this feel?

We are extremely focused. This is what we have been doing for more than 20 years. It is our research. It is the way we deal with scientific and medical challenges and of course we know that people pay a lot of attention to what we do. But we don't see it as something personal. We see that our work is important.

We are not alone. We are working together with a world class team here in Mainz. We are working together with a world class partner in the United States. We have so much support by many, many other companies that we don't feel alone and that we can take care of this big challenge together as a team. 

You are scientific superheroes!

We are scientists. And the science we did was important. But we were not alone in developing this science. I think the whole scientific community is a superhero and it should really be regarded, not as a single event, but as an investment into research by so many different scientists who have contributed until this is accomplished.

You have not been vaccinated yet. Why not?

We are legally not allowed to take the vaccine. Of course, we consider. It is more important for us that our co-workers and partners get vaccinated, so our aim is to produce more that 1.3 billion doses in 2021. And this can only be done if we can continue to work 24/7 without interruption. And we have to make sure that we can protect our co-workers and our team members from COVID-19 infections, because that would mean interruptions and delays in producing vaccine doses. Therefore, we are planning to produce a separate batch from the EU contingent to supply our cooperation partners and team members. 

Why are you legally not allowed to take the vaccine?

You know, there is a priority list. It is not allowed to take the vaccine outside that priority list. What is also important: we were even not allowed to participate in clinical trials, because by law it is not possible to include people from the company in such trials, which is fine. But now we face the challenge of making sure that our company is able to function, and I believe we will find a legal and fair solution for that.