BioNTech CEO Says Vaccine Production Needs to Get Even Faster

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A year after Covid-19 was declared a pandemic, the world would be well advised to prepare for the next one.

That’s the warning from BioNTech SE Chief Executive Officer Ugur Sahin, the researcher behind one of the first approved coronavirus vaccines. And while the virus still constricts much of daily life around the world, Sahin says Covid-19 isn’t even the worst outbreak imaginable. In fact, future pandemics could be more devastating, and being ready is key, he said in an interview.

The goal should be for drugmakers and governments to have production capacity to immunize the entire world within three months after a shot is developed, Sahin said. Given the state of current vaccine campaigns, with large swathes of the global population still waiting for a shot, that’s an ambitious target. In order to get there, Sahin envisions a public-private partnership, comparing the huge outlays required to paying for insurance.

“We were not prepared to manufacture sufficient doses for the whole population on this planet,” Sahin said of the current campaign. “That has to change. We need to be prepared not only to develop a vaccine fast, but also to produce sufficient doses.”

Sahin’s cautionary tone comes amid a faltering inoculation campaign on BioNTech’s home turf, with European Union officials sparring with AstraZeneca Plc over a slowdown in promised deliveries. BioNTech and its U.S. partner Pfizer Inc. are expected to ship the lion’s share of the 400 million doses the EU is counting on to speed up its immunization campaign in the second quarter. But for now, only about 7% of Europeans have gotten at least one dose -- compared with about 19% of people in the U.S. Most countries in Africa, meanwhile, haven’t even begun.

Future Uses

Vaccine makers as a whole will produce enough doses for the entire world next year, Sahin predicted in a Bloomberg Television interview earlier this week. Pfizer and BioNTech could have capacity to make 3 billion shots in 2022, he said.

Sahin, 55, and his wife, BioNTech co-founder Ozlem Tureci, 54, spent most of their careers pushing the boundaries of cancer research until the pandemic thrust them into the spotlight last year. The messenger RNA technology they helped pioneer -- with Pfizer joining the project last March -- proved to be one of the best and fastest ways to make a vaccine to fight the pandemic.

The World Health Organization on March 11, 2020, declared Covid a pandemic as the disease spread to Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere. That same month, countries across Europe, beginning with Italy, imposed the first of a series of lockdowns. The virus has infected almost 120 million people and killed more than 2.6 million.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was the first to be authorized in the U.S. and Europe, getting emergency clearance in December. The pandemic has turned BioNTech, which until last year had no marketed drugs, into a household name. Pfizer has predicted $15 billion in revenue this year from the Covid vaccine.

Partnerships

BioNTech has said it will invest its portion of the windfall into its pipeline of experimental medicines, with plans to push as many as three of its cancer programs into mid-stage clinical trials this year.

“We are open for partnerships, but we do not depend on them,” Sahin said, adding that new partners need to be able to help the company get a product to the market more quickly or add a complementary skill or technology.

He predicted a wide range of future uses for mRNA. In vaccines, the technology sends the genetic instructions for the body’s own cells to produce the material needed to get the immune system ready to fight a potential future infection. As a therapeutic -- an unproven field -- the new technology could instruct cells to make any type of protein, potentially transforming them into tiny factories for drugs as well.

The technology could be used in cancer immunotherapy and regenerative medicine as well as to fight autoimmune disease, allergies and rare diseases, Sahin said.

“We will see in the next 18 to 24 months a lot of potential applications which are out of the box,” Sahin said. “We believe that what we do could change the fate of people with severe diseases.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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