FRANKFURT, – BioNTech is expected to be able to adapt its coronavirus vaccine relatively quickly in response to the Omicron variant, and the coming weeks will show how urgent an upgrade is, its CEO Ugur Sahin said on Friday at the Reuters Next conference.
Sahin said people should continue to research the established vaccine, developed with Pfizer, as it most likely continues to protect against serious illness.
“I believe in principle that at some point we will need a new vaccine against this new variant. The question is how urgently it needs to be available,” Sahin said.
He reiterated that a relaunch of the product could be achieved within about 100 days and said a redesign is already underway. But any confirmation of the protection of the existing vaccine against serious disease could save developers time for a more measured approach.
If the third boosters still prevent disease at a rate of 85-90%, “we would have more time to adapt a vaccine,” he said.
German companies BioNTech and Pfizer together produced one of the first COVID-19 vaccines, with more than 2 billion doses already administered to protect people around the world.
There are concerns that the vaccines may not work as well against the Omicron variant that emerged last month.
Sahin reaffirmed his view, said in an interview with Reuters on Tuesday, that the new variant could infect those vaccinated but would likely prevent the need for hospital care.
“We expect this new variant to evolve as an antibody escape variant. This means that this variant might be able to infect vaccinees,” Sahin said.
“We expect that infected people who have been vaccinated will always be protected against serious illness,” Sahin added.
The CEO of BioNTech, whose work until the emergence of the COVID-19 coronavirus in 2020 focused on cancer, said the new variant appeared sooner than he expected.
“This highly mutant virus has arrived earlier than expected. I expected it next year and it is already with us.”
Sahin also said mutations in the virus meant annual vaccinations were more likely to be the norm, as is the case with seasonal flu.
Much remains unknown about Omicron, which was first detected in southern Africa last month and has been spotted in at least two dozen countries. It emerged just as parts of Europe were already grappling with a wave of Delta variant infections.
When asked how contagious the Omicron variant can be, Ozlem Tureci, the chief medical officer of BioNTech and his co-founder said the next few days or weeks will show.
BioNTech has been criticized for the slow rollout of vaccine deliveries to low-income countries. CEO Sahin said a planned vaccine production network in Africa would eventually be transferred to local ownership and control.
“Our most important concern is to ensure that the quality is established. How that could be guaranteed when we transfer our technology, and when we also transfer ownership, is something that we are discussing at the moment,” he said. added.
But vaccine patents should not be abandoned, as US President Joe Biden has suggested, because any knowledge transfer would require the practical involvement of BioNTech.
Even the most experienced manufacturing contractors needed one-site supervision from BioNTech staff to produce consistent quality, Sahin said.
“It’s not that we want to be involved, we have to be involved.
“I am not against patent waivers,” he added. “I am looking for solutions.”