Finally, some good news regarding the Covid-19 situation.
On the heels of Monday’s announcement that two pharmaceutical giants have developed a vaccine which is 90% effective in phase 3 trials, a scientist who helped create it says he’s confident the product can put an end to the pandemic.
In his first interview with a British newspaper, BioNTech’s chief executive, Uğur Şahin, told The Guardian he was optimistic.
“If the question is whether we can stop this pandemic with this vaccine, then my answer is: yes, because I believe that even protection only from symptomatic infections will have a dramatic effect,” Şahin said in a Zoom call from his home in Mainz.
The German company BioNTech and the US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced via a press release on Monday that their jointly developed vaccine candidate had outperformed expectations, The Guardian reported.
Until Monday’s trial results were revealed, the scientist said, he wasn’t sure whether his vaccine would trigger a strong enough reaction from the human immune system.
“It was possible that the virus isn’t really targeted by the vaccine, finds its way into the cells and continues to make people ill. We now know that vaccines can beat this virus.”
While current trials of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine will not formally prove that it prevents transmission of the virus, as opposed to merely stopping infected people from falling ill, the 55-year-old said the high efficacy results have led him to assume it can, The Guardian reported.
BioNTech, a company founded in 2008 by the German scientists and married couple Şahin and Özlem Türeci, as well as the Austrian oncologist Christoph Huber, developed its vaccine with an experimental method known as mRNA.
While conventional vaccines take genetic information from a virus and cultivate it in a human cell, the mRNA method merely requires the virus’s genetic code, thus shortening the production process by almost three months, The Guardian reported.
Pfizer’s expertise with mass-market vaccines and quick action from regulatory authorities helped speed up the development process to 10 months rather than 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 crucial questions regarding the vaccine’s efficacy will only be answerable in the coming weeks and months, Şahin said. Establishing for certain whether it can also stop asymptomatic infections could take up to a year, The Guardian reported.
Şahin, a Turkish immigrant since the age of 4, 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’s important for us is that we are developing a vaccine and we don’t play politics.”
Şahin, who stands to be become quiet wealthy from the vaccine should it go ahead, played down the stock implications, saying “such sums were merely “numbers on pieces of paper” for now. He also insisted he would continue riding his bicycle to work.
He doesn’t have a driving licence, nor does he own a television.
“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.”
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.”