The new Vaccine Candidate for COVID-19

The scientist behind the first Covid-19 vaccine to clear interim clinical trials says he is optimistic that his product will “bash the virus over the head” and bring an end to the COVID-19 global pandemic in 2020. In a press release on Monday, the German company BioNTech and the US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced that their jointly produced vaccine candidate had exceeded expectations in the phase 3 trials, proving 90% effective in stopping people falling ill. However, “The Guardian” reports that the question of whether the vaccine is also safe for those with asymptomatic infections has been left unanswered by the lack of complete data sets from the ongoing trials.

BioNTech’s chief executive, Uğur Şahin, said in his first interview with a British newspaper that he was positive. “If the question is whether, with this vaccine, we can avoid this pandemic, then my response is: yes, because I believe that even protection from symptomatic infections alone can have a drastic impact,” the Guardian reports. Until the results of Monday’s trial were announced, the scientist said he was not sure whether his vaccine would cause a sufficiently strong human immune system reaction. The virus may not necessarily be targeted by the vaccine, find its way into the cells, and continue to make people sick. We now know that this virus can be beaten by vaccinations.” The experience of Pfizer with mass-market vaccines and swift intervention by regulatory authorities helped speed up the development process to 10 months instead of years, Şahin said.” “There was practically no waiting time. Imagine you want to get from one end of London to the next and there are traffic jams everywhere. You would need half a day. For our project, the streets were empty.”

The most effective candidate to emerge from the company’s trials, Şahin said, attacked the coronavirus “in more ways than one”. “The vaccine hinders Covid-19 from gaining access to our cells. But even if the virus manages to find a way in, then the T-cells bash it over the head and eliminate it. We have trained the immune system very well to perfect these two defensive moves. We now know that the virus can’t defend itself against these mechanisms.”

Some critical questions about the effectiveness of the vaccine would be answerable only in the weeks and months to come, Şahin said. It may take up to a year to determine for certain whether it can also prevent asymptomatic infections. It was expected in about three weeks to provide more insight into whether the vaccine provides various levels of safety to different age groups, he said. Also, the interim studies have not yet fully decided whether the vaccine acts differently on individuals from various ethnic groups. Şahin said he hoped that those receiving the vaccine, provided three weeks apart by two arm injections, would be immune to the coronavirus for at least a year. Studies in Covid-19 patients have shown that, after six months, those with a good immune response still have that response. I could imagine that for at least a year we could be healthy.” He said he couldn’t rule out that periodically, Covid-19 jabs would need to be “topped up” annually. 

The timing of Monday’s announcement by BioNTech and Pfizer has drawn criticism, with the US president, Donald Trump, accusing the companies of holding back the good news until after the American elections. “Because they didn’t dare to do it before”. Şahin said he was notified of the outcome of the interim trials at 8 pm on Sunday in a call from the Pfizer chief executive, Albert Bourla, who himself had only been informed three minutes earlier by the independent monitoring board. “That was the second of truth when a great weight fell off our minds,” he said. “Pharmaceutical research should never be politicised. It’s a question of integrity. Withholding information would have been unethical. What is important for us is that we are developing a vaccine and we do not play politics.”

BioNTech’s shares shot up in the wake of Monday’s announcement, with the total value of its stock now $21.9bn (£16.6bn). But Şahin said such sums were mere “numbers on pieces of paper” for now. “There will come a point when we can think about what to do with our money,” he said. “Usually people who have created something new are interested in creating something new again. We have to work out for ourselves what that is, whether it is a foundation or a specific project.”

Asked whether he had any private passions or hobbies that he would indulge once the vaccine reached the market, Şahin said: “We are thoroughbred scientists. We love our work, and we love talking about it. Work is never stress for us, something we try to catch a break from.” He said there was “no way” he would replace the bicycle he has used for his daily commute for the last 15 years. After Sunday night’s bombshell phone call, Şahin and Türeci, BioNTech’s chief medical officer, “celebrated a little”. “My wife and I sat down, talked to each other and made cups of tea. The relief was a very good feeling.” The couple, who met at university and have been married since 2002, are both children of Turkish migrants who moved to Germany in the late 1960s. But the scientist bristled at the suggestion that he or his partner could become role models for a generation of Germans with migrant backgrounds.

“I am not sure I want that. I think we need a global vision that gives everyone an equal chance. Intelligence is equally distributed across all ethnicities, that is what all the studies show. As a society, we have to ask ourselves how we can give everyone a chance to contribute to society. I am an accidental example of someone with a migration background. I could have equally been German or Spanish.”

By Jumana Jabeer

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