BioNTech Says COVID Vaccine 'Highly Likely' to Work Against New UK Strain

Even if a new vaccine is needed, it could be developed in six weeks, BioNTech co-founder Uğur Şahin said.
December 22, 2020, 1:50pm
Doctor holding Pfizer BioNtech vaccine and syringe to protect against coronavirus COVID-19 disease.​
Doctor holding Pfizer BioNtech vaccine and syringe to protect against coronavirus COVID-19 disease. Photo: lakshmiprasad S / Alamy Stock Photo

The head of the German pharma company behind a leading coronavirus vaccine said Tuesday that he was confident it would work against a contagious new mutation of the virus that is spreading rapidly in the UK and sparked worldwide concern.

BioNTech co-founder Uğur Şahin said that, if needed, the company could likely produce a new vaccine to respond to the mutation within six weeks — although regulators might need further time to sign off before it could be rolled out.

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“We don’t know at the moment if our vaccine is also able to provide protection against this new variant,” Şahin told a press conference, the day after the European Union approved the vaccine for use.

“But scientifically, it is highly likely that the immune response by this vaccine also can deal with the new virus variants.”

Şahin said the UK strain — which British health authorities have warned may be 70 percent more transmissible — has nine mutations, rather than just one, as is common.

Despite this, he said the existing BioNTech vaccine, developed with the US pharmaceutical company Pfizer, should still be effective, because the new strain “contains more than 1,000 amino acids, and only nine of them have changed. So that means 99 percent of the protein is still the same.”

If a new vaccine was required, he said his company’s technology could be able to develop one within six weeks.

The rapid spread of the new mutation, first detected in September, has caused widespread alarm, leading the UK government to place large areas of the country, including London, under strict lockdowns over the Christmas period, and dozens of countries to slap travel restrictions on the UK. Experts have warned that the tough new “Tier 4” may soon be extended to the rest of England.

The new strain now accounts for about two-thirds of new infections in London, but there is no evidence that it causes more serious illness.

France’s 48-hour ban on trucks entering from the UK has resulted in chaos on trucking routes into Europe. But BioNTech’s chief business and commercial officer Sean Marrett said Tuesday he did not expect any disruption to the supply of the vaccine into the UK, where more than 500,000 had received their first dose as of Monday.

“There are not just routes through the Channel tunnel,” he said.

Following the EU’s approval of the vaccine Monday, officials say vaccination programs across the 27-member bloc should begin shortly after Christmas.