The CEO of German pharmaceutical company BioNTech remains confident that the company's Covid vaccine, developed in partnership with Pfizer, will be effective against the highly infectious variants of the virus discovered in the UK and South Africa.
"We are confident that based on the mechanism of our vaccine, although there are mutations, we believe that the immune response induced by our vaccine could also treat (a) mutated virus," said Dr. Ugur Sahin, co-founder and CEO of BioNTech, said CNBC's Meg Tirrell on Monday.
"Last week we reported another mutation that is present in both the UK and South African variants. This mutation is believed to be important as it could structurally alter the protein. However, it appears that the immune response to our vaccine does also neutralizes mutation. "
His comments were based on research published Thursday showing that Pfizer-BioNTech's Covid-19 vaccine appeared to be effective against a key mutation in the more infectious variants of the virus discovered in the UK and South Africa.
The study, carried out by US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and not yet peer-reviewed, suggested that the vaccine neutralized the so-called N501Y mutation. This mutation has been reported in the coronavirus variants discovered in the UK and South Africa.
The variants, which emerged separately, both share a genetic mutation of the so-called spike protein, which the virus uses to penetrate the cells of the body.
Doctors preliminarily welcomed the results of the study last week, but cautioned that the research focused only on the N501Y mutation found in both new variants.
BioNTech's Sahin said the company will be able to present more data in the coming days examining the full set of mutations.
The new vaccine could be ready "within six weeks".
Pfizer-BioNTech's Covid vaccine uses messenger RNA or mRNA technology, like Moderna's. In practice, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says this "teaches our cells how to make a protein – or even a piece of a protein – that will trigger an immune response in our bodies."
The resulting immune response produces antibodies that protect people from becoming infected with the virus.
Ugur Sahin, co-founder and CEO of Biontech, is on the company premises. Biontech is a biotechnology company that researches vaccines against the coronavirus, among other things. (Photo by Andreas Arnold / Image Alliance via Getty Images)
Andreas Arnold | Image alliance via Getty Images
When asked how fast BioNTech could turn if the existing Covid vaccine were found to be ineffective against new variants, Sahin said "a key benefit" of mRNA technology is that the company is adapting the vaccine relatively quickly could. ""
"We can change the order of the vaccine in a matter of days and, in principle, deliver a new vaccine within six weeks. This is technically possible and if necessary we would go for it," he said, noting that it is is would also require discussions with regulators such as the Food and Drug Administration.
"We are therefore confident that the technology with which we can react to a mutation or a virus variant with different problems will react extremely quickly," said Sahin.
Public health experts have raised concerns that the new mutant strains could pose a threat to vaccination efforts. In recent weeks, optimism about the mass adoption of Covid vaccines has been tempered by the resurgent rate of virus spread around the world.
To date, more than 90.3 million people worldwide have contracted the coronavirus, with 1.93 million deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.