BioNTech Founders Address Burning COVID-19 Vaccine Questions

"In the absence of evidence, we would [recommend] applying the second dose not much later than what's originally proposed." 

Diana Carolina, a medic at Memorial Healthcare System, receives a Pfizer-BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine from Monica Puga at Memorial Healthcare System, in Miramar, Florida on December 14, 2020. CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images

Just six months ago, German pharma firm BioNTech was a little-known name outside the European biotech startup scene. But since November 2020, when the German firm and its research partner, Pfizer, declared success with the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine, BNT162b2, BioNTech has become an international household name. And its founders, the husband-and-wife team, Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci, are hailed as world-saving heroes.

On Wednesday, Şahin and Türeci spoke on a panel at the JPM conference to address some of the most burning questions around COVID vaccines as countries around the world roll out millions of doses at unprecedented speed.

On the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine specifically, an oft-brought-up question is whether injection of the second dose of the two-dose vaccine can be delayed so that more people can have access to the first dose when supply runs tight. It’s also a question relevant to Moderna’s COVID vaccine, which is also based on the novel messenger RNA technology and requires two doses.

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The short answer, according to Sahin, BioNTech’s CEO, is no. “It’s very clear that our vaccine is a two-dose vaccine,” he said, before going on to explain, “There are several reasons we need the second dose. The first is that we get a boost with the second dose for neutralizing antibody response, which is very important in preventing infection”

“Of course, there’s this discussion that there could be a benefit to society if the second dose is delayed,” he added, “But there is a risk, because we don’t have data [supporting that]. So, in the absence of evidence, we would [recommend] applying the second dose not much later than what’s originally proposed.” 

Ugur Sahin, co-founder and CEO of BioNTech. Andreas Arnold/picture alliance via Getty Images

Both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are designed to be given twice three weeks apart. Anticipating demand for the booster injection, many governments, including the U.S., chose to reserve those doses from the initial delivery for those who have received the first dose. However, due to improper storage, planning mistakes or no-show for vaccine appointments, there have been reports of some doses going to waste.

“For a team like ours, which have developed a vaccine, definitely want to see each and every dose to be used. It’s disappointing to see when things don’t go smoothly during distribution,” said Türeci, Sahin’s wife and BioNTech’s chief medical officer.

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“On the other hand, we have to keep in mind that vaccine distribution of this scale has never been done before. There was no practice, no dry runs,” she added. “We can’t expect everything to go smoothly from the beginning. There’s also no one to blame for this. The most important thing is to learn what we are encountering in the process and act on it.”

BioNTech began working on a COVID-19 vaccine in January 2020, when the coronavirus just started spreading in parts of China, and struck a collaboration with Pfizer in March. (BioNTech had been working with Pfizer on a flu vaccine since 2018.)

The German company was a rising star in the global biotech scene even before the pandemic. The company went public in September 2019. Last year, it received $55 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to fund its work treating H.I.V. and tuberculosis.

Ozlem Tureci, chief medical officer of BioNTech. BioNTech/AFP via Getty Images
BioNTech Founders Address Burning COVID-19 Vaccine Questions