BERLIN: The chief executive of BioNTech says the German pharmaceutical company is confident that its coronavirus vaccine works against the United Kingdom variant, but further studies are need to be completely sure.
Ugur Sahin said on Tuesday (Dec 22) that “we don’t know at the moment if our vaccine is also able to provide protection against this new variant”, but because the proteins on the variant are 99 per cent the same as the prevailing strains, BioNTech has “scientific confidence” in the vaccine.
Sahin said BioNTech is currently conducting further studies and hopes to have certainty within the coming weeks.
“The likelihood that our vaccine works ... is relatively high,” he said.
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If necessary, BioNTech would be able to adapt its vaccine within six weeks, Sahin said, as the vaccine relies on messenger RNA technology.
"In principle, the beauty of the messenger technology is that we can directly start to engineer a vaccine which completely mimics this new mutation - we could be able to provide a new vaccine technically within six weeks," he said.
Sahin added that the variant detected in Britain has nine mutations, rather than just one as is usually common.
BioNTech’s vaccine, developed together with American pharmaceutical company Pfizer, is authorised for use in more than 45 countries including Singapore, the European Union, the UK and the United States.
EU GEARS UP FOR VACCINATION DRIVE
The EU is gearing up for a vaccination campaign of unprecedented scale following regulatory approval for the shot on Monday.
A total of 12.5 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will be sent to EU countries by the end of year.
The EU deliveries amount to more than half the 20 million doses expected to be available in the United States before the end of the year, BioNTech's chief business officer, Sean Marett, told a briefing.
With two shots administered three weeks apart, the supplies are enough to vaccinate 6.25 million people in the bloc.
The 27 EU member states that want shots produced in BioNTech's manufacturing sites in Germany, and Pfizer's site in Puurs, Belgium, will receive them on Saturday so vaccinations can start on Sunday, chief financial officer Sierk Poetting said.
"We have a very tight delivery schedule into all the European countries," he said.
Pfizer and BioNTech have said they expect to produce 1.3 billion doses in 2021. Executives at the German biotech company said it is looking for ways to boost output capacity to meet global demand as governments struggle to tame the pandemic that has killed about 1.7 million people globally and crushed economies worldwide.
BioNTech plans to start production in February at its new site in Marburg, Germany, Poetting said.
It has said previously the facility, which it bought in September, would eventually have an annual production capacity of up to 750 million doses.
"We are scouting every possibility to produce as many vaccines as possible in 2021 and then thereafter," said Poetting, adding that there was nothing specific to discuss yet.
While the approval by the European Union is a major step in tackling the virus, coming after similar moves by the United Kingdom and the United States, it will take time to inoculate the world.
Sahin estimated that 60 per cent to 80 per cent of the global population could be vaccinated by autumn next year, as vaccines by other drugmakers like Moderna also get rolled out.
"This is really important, because this winter we will not have an impact on the infection numbers, but we must have an impact so that the next winter will be the new normal," he said.