At the Dies celebration last Monday, the UvA awarded two honorary doctorates to vaccine developers and couple Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci for ‘their crucial role in research on mRNA vaccine development’. Folia spoke with them about the success of their company BioNTech, equal distribution of vaccines worldwide and, of course, about the omicron vaccine.
Before corona, the Turkish-German immunologists knew little about viruses. However, they were experts on messenger RNA (mRNA), the unstable messenger that can convert codes from DNA into proteins. Şahin and Türeci used this technique in their research for a vaccine against cancer. With mRNA, one can develop a vaccine in the shortest possible time and induce a strong immune response.
When the first papers on Wuhan appeared in January 2020, Şahin and Türeci dove into the literature. ‘We are not virologists and read almost a hundred papers in one weekend to learn more about the virus,’ Şahin told magazine EW in an earlier interview. The disclosure of the genetic code of Sars-CoV-2 was the beginning of project lightspeed, a 24/7 program to create a mRNA-vaccine against Covid-19. Pharmaceutical company Pfizer became a partner to conduct the Phase 3 trial and support with manufacturing and regulatory tasks at global scale. In September 2020 their company BioNTech acquired their own large-scale manufacturing plant to produce the Covid-19 vaccine. In November 2020, the first Pfizer-BioNTech corona vaccine was approved for use.
You have proven that mRNA technology works and it is receiving worldwide attention. What does all this mean in changes for BioNTech?
Türeci: ‘When we started our company the vision was to serve high medical need. We are physicians, and have worked in oncology: one of the areas of highest medical need. The proceeds from supplying the Covid-19 vaccine can now be invested to serve society and our ongoing research. We see our obligation more global and broader, not only cancer but also including other therapeutic areas, and not only high medical need but also a pandemic vaccine, where you do not treat but prevent. This vision can now be pursued better with the proceeds.’
The main goal of BioNTech, is to develop immunotherapies for cancer. What makes developing cancer medication with mRNA technology so complicated compared to vaccines?
Türeci: ‘Cancer is much more complex. Firstly, it is about treatment, the cancer is already there when you administer a vaccine. There is already an army of billions of cells that you have to combat. So the situation from which you start is an entirely different one. Besides, cancer is individual so each and every patient has a different mixture of cells and each cell has advantages to escape your treatment. When it comes to simple operational aspects, cancer trials take much longer. This is why virus vaccines can be produced in lightspeed, and cancer therapies can not.’
Last year, in 2021 you received a lot of awards, also the honorary doctorate of the University of Cologne. What does the honorary doctorate of the University of Amsterdam mean to you?
Türeci: ‘It is a great honour for us, and a pleasure. Every price and award is special, but this one is special because in our hearts, we are still academics. We grew up in academia, and the University of Amsterdam has such a deep and long tradition as an academic institution. The setup of research and clinics reflects many of the aspects of our university, our alma mater here in Mainz. We know how challenging it is, to set up infrastructure, institutes, cross functional- and cross disciplinary units, to ensure that the highest academic and clinical practice standards are met. This is what we really like about the University of Amsterdam. And that is why this doctorate is special.’
In an earlier interview you (Ugur Sahin) said that ‘international cooperation and equal distribution’ is the key out of the pandemic. This is not yet the case. How do we ensure that the whole world - including Africa - is vaccinated at the same time?
Şahin: ‘We are doing three things at the moment – this is really at the core of our hearts – to ensure equitable access. The first part is manufacturing mRNA to increase the global supply. Together with thirty partners, we have shipped more than 1.1 billion doses in 2021 to low- and middle-income countries and we will have 2 billion doses shipped by the end of 2022. The second approach is to engage in the development of medicines that are relevant for these countries, we are heavily working on malaria vaccines, on tuberculosis vaccines, we have an hiv program that is highly relevant for African, Indian, and other regions where people are in high need for medicines. The third approach is the access to innovation. We believe that it is important to transfer our technology and teach people to enable them to make their own mRNA vaccines. We started collaborations in Africa with Senegal and Rwanda to build manufacturing factories on the African continent starting this year already. The idea is to transfer the technology, so that this region can really become independent. And more important, independent in a skilled fashion, so that we have the same quality of vaccines as in Germany and in the rest of Europe.’
Last Thursday an open letter was published by Docters without Borders, claiming that BioNTech is preventing equal distribution of vaccination. What is your response to this letter?
Şahin: ‘We are aware of the open letters of various organizations, and we understand their point of view. We do not comment on each and every of those letters as we truly believe, it is much more important to act, and show results. To act is the best way to prove that we mean what we say. And that is what we intend to do with our cooperation with our African partners.’
What is the reason not to remove the ownership rights of Covid-19-vaccins?
Şahin: ‘Simply releasing the patents will not help, it will not be sufficient. Patents are not the limiting factor to manufacture more doses. At the end of the day, it is not the intention that counts but the execution. The execution is so complex, if you have an mRNA vaccine, it is not just a protocol or a recipe that you are transferring, it is 40.000 steps, it is hundreds of assays, it is about teaching, transferring knowledge… We will do that, but it takes time, it will not happen from today to tomorrow, but we will have a manufacturing factory and the first doses in the next two years in Africa. And the people will be proud because it will be their vaccine, and their manufacturing unit.’
Türeci: ‘If people are hungry, it does not help them that you give them a drawing of a fish. You must teach them how to catch fish and bring the equipment, even the most basic equipment has not been established outside of the United States and Europe. This is what this is about, why we do it the way we do it.’
You are working on a new vaccine against omicron. How far is the development and when is this vaccine ready?
Şahin: ‘We have already produced the vaccine for clinical trials and we will start them at the end of this month. We must see if the adapted vaccine works better that the existing vaccine. We can see that the existing vaccines are good in preventing severe disease. The question is, can we do better, by developing a vaccine that prevents disease, or prevents infection. If this is the case, we have a good reason to introduce a new vaccine. At the same time, we have to be aware that omicron is not the last variant. We are targeting March for commercial production, that is of course, if we get approval from the regulatory authorities.’