BioNTech founder Ozlem Tureci stresses vaccine safety as she turns focus to fighting cancer

Scientist who won race for coronavirus vaccine receives Germany’s Order of Merit

Ozlem Tureci (L) and her husband Ugur Sahin, both scientists and founders of BioNTech, pose with their orders after they were awarded the Federal Cross of Merit (Bundesverdienstkreuz) by the German President on March 19, 2021 at the presidential Bellevue Palace in Berlin. / AFP / POOL / Odd ANDERSEN
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The BioNTech scientist who was first to deliver an anti-Covid vaccine stressed the importance of international co-operation in battling the pandemic after a row over safety threatened to derail vaccine programmes.

Ozlem Tureci, who founded the German company BioNTech with her husband Ugur Sahin, said people can rest assured vaccines are safe, and the technology behind them will soon be used to fight another global scourge – cancer.

Among the lessons she and her colleagues learnt was “how important co-operation and collaboration is internationally”.

During a scare in Europe this week over the coronavirus shot made by British-Swedish rival AstraZeneca, Dr Tureci dismissed the idea that corners were cut by those racing to develop a vaccine.

“There is a very rigid process in place and the process does not stop after a vaccine has been approved,” said the scientist, who was born in Germany to Turkish parents. “It is, in fact, continuing now all around the world, where regulators have used reporting systems to screen and to assess any observations made with our or other vaccines.”

Nearly a dozen countries resumed use of AstraZeneca's Covid-19 shots on Friday as EU and British regulators said the benefits outweighed any risks after reports of rare instances of blood clotting that temporarily halted inoculations.

The end of suspensions will be a test of public confidence, both in the shot and in drug regulators whose conclusions are under scrutiny as virus variants spread and the global death toll, now at nearly 2.7 million, rises.

Indonesia joined Germany, France and others in re-administering the shots after they suspended vaccinations because of reports of about 30 cases of rare brain blood clots – among millions of people injected – that sent scientists and governments scrambling to determine if there was a link.

The European Medicines Agency came to what it called a clear conclusion that the vaccine's benefits in protecting people from coronavirus-related death or hospital admission outweighed the possible risks.

Still, EMA said a link between rare events of blood clots in the brain and the vaccine could not be definitively ruled out and that it will continue its scrutiny, along with the British Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.

"This is a safe and effective vaccine," EMA director Emer Cooke said on Thursday. "If it were me, I would be vaccinated tomorrow."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (C) listens to Ozlem Tureci (L) after she and her husband Ugur Sahin (R), both scientists and founders of BioNTech, were awarded the Federal Cross of Merit (Bundesverdienstkreuz) by the German President on March 19, 2021 at the presidential Bellevue Palace in Berlin. / AFP / POOL / Odd ANDERSEN

For now, Dr Tureci and Mr Sahin are trying to ensure the vaccines that governments have ordered are delivered and that the shots respond effectively to any new mutation in the virus.

On Friday, they are taking time out of their schedule to receive Germany’s highest award, the Order of Merit, from President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a trained scientist herself, will attend the ceremony.

“It’s indeed an honour,” Dr Tureci said of the award. “Both my husband and I are touched.”

But she insisted that developing the vaccine was the work of many.

It pays off to make bold decisions and to trust that if you have an extraordinary team

“It’s about the effort of many, our team at BioNTech, all the partners who were involved, also governments, regulatory authorities, which worked together with a sense of urgency,” she said. “The way we see it, this is an acknowledgement of this effort and also a celebration of science.”

Britain authorised BioNTech’s mRNA vaccine for use in December, followed a week later by the United States. Dozens of other countries followed suit and tens of millions of people worldwide have since received the shot developed together with US pharmaceutical company Pfizer.

“It pays off to make bold decisions and to trust that if you have an extraordinary team, you will be able to solve any problem and obstacle which comes your way in real time,” Dr Tureci said.

Her team was working on a way to harness the body’s immune system to tackle tumours when they learnt last year of an unknown virus infecting people in China.

Over breakfast, the couple decided to apply the technology they had been researching for two decades to the new threat.

Among the biggest challenges for the small, Mainz-based company were how to conduct large-scale clinical trials across different regions and how to scale up the manufacturing process to meet global demand.

Alongside Pfizer, the company enlisted the help of Fosun Pharma in China “to get assets, capabilities and geographical footprint on board, which we did not have”, Dr Tureci said.

The company approached supervisory medical bodies from the start, she said, to ensure that the new type of vaccine would pass the rigorous scrutiny of regulators.

“The process of getting a medicine or a vaccine approved is one where many questions are asked, many experts are involved and there is external peer review of all the data and scientific discourse,” she said.

Dr Tureci and her colleagues have all been vaccinated with the BioNTech shot.

As BioNTech’s profile grew during the pandemic, so did its value, adding much-needed funds the company will be able to use to pursue its original goal of developing a new tool against cancer.

The vaccine made by BioNTech-Pfizer and that of US rival Moderna uses messenger RNA, or mRNA, to carry instructions into the human body for making proteins that prime it to attack a specific virus. The same principle can be applied to encourage the immune system to take on tumours.

“We have several different cancer vaccines based on mRNA,” Dr Tureci said.

Asked when such a therapy might be available, she said “that’s very difficult to predict in innovative development. But we expect that within only a couple of years, we will also have our vaccines against cancer at a place where we can offer them to people”.