Germany’s BioNTech said it could use existing technology to produce a new vaccine against mutations of the coronavirus within six weeks, as concerns mounted over the new Covid-19 strain spreading across the UK.
Ugur Sahin, BioNTech’s chief executive, said he thought the company’s existing Covid-19 vaccine, developed with Pfizer, would still be effective against the new variant. If not, “the beauty of the messenger mRNA technology is we can directly start to engineer a vaccine that completely mimics this new mutation and we could manufacture a new vaccine within six weeks,” he said.
Scientists are scrambling to understand the new coronavirus variant that has left the UK isolated from the rest of the world after countries suspended travel and blocked some freight. First identified in the UK in late September, the mutation has spread rapidly around the country and has now been documented in Denmark, Iceland, the Netherlands, Australia and Italy.
Experts have said they do not expect the mutations from the new strain, known as B.1.1.7, to interfere with the effectiveness of existing vaccines.
“As a scientist, you are not optimistic, you think in likelihoods and the likelihood it works is relatively high,” said Dr Sahin. Even though there were multiple mutations on the new variant, there were many parts of the virus that had not mutated, including most of the sites that triggered the body’s T cell response to fight infection, he said. “[This] makes us confident that the T cell response will still work, but we need to do experiments to quantify how well it works.”
Dr Sahin said it would take two weeks to complete the laboratory work needed to definitively prove whether or not the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, already approved for use in the UK, US and EU, would still work as effectively.
Ozlem Tureci, BioNTech’s chief medical officer, said the breakthrough mRNA technology used to develop the vaccine would make it easier to tweak the vaccine to target the new variant if required.
“In principle, what we would do is change the insert [of the vaccine] and replace a virus variant with another variant without touching the platform,” Dr Tureci said.
The speed of the rollout of a new shot would then depend on how long regulators took to authorise the new formulation, Dr Sahin and Dr Tureci said.
The existing BioNTech/Pfzier vaccine was approved by the European Medicines Agency on Monday, after already receiving use authorisations in the UK, US and several other countries. Doses of the shot will be distributed to all European member states on December 26, for vaccinations to begin across the EU two days later, the company said.
The vaccine has already begun to be administered in the UK, the US, Canada and Israel.
BioNTech does not yet know whether the vaccine prevents viral transmission as well as preventing sickness but said it expected to have definitive data on this by February.
BioNTech said it aimed to deliver 45m doses by the end of the year, including 12.5m to the EU and 20m to the US. It aims to produce 1.3bn doses by the end of 2021.
“We are scouting every possibility right now to produce as many vaccines as possible in 2021,” said Dr Sierk Poetting, chief financial officer. “[But] there will be scarcity of the vaccine,” he added.