Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine inventor Ugur Sahin hails once-in-a-lifetime experience as Dubai starts inoculations

Prof Sahin rejected any attempts to smear the vaccine by anti-vax activists, in an interview with The National

Ugur Sahin, CEO of Biontech, gestures during an interview in Mainz, Germany, Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2019. The chief executive of BioNTech says the German pharmaceutical company is confident that its coronavirus vaccine works against the UK variant, but further studies are need to be completely sure. (Andreas Arnold/dpa via AP)
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Related: The first Dubai residents to receive Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine

The scientist behind the pioneering Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine said it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to benefit mankind.

Prof Ugur Sahin, a founder of BioNTech – which developed the vaccine with Pfizer – said years of experience away from the spotlight paid off when the world needed it the most.

"I had the feeling that everything that we did in the past was needed to deliver now," Prof Sahin told The National on Wednesday.

Everything that we did in the past was needed to deliver now

"That feeling is something that many of us had. You are learning, you are doing science, you are improving technology and then you are prepared to deliver when it is desperately needed.

“It feels fantastic, because that is why we started. We want to make a difference and provide benefit to mankind and we feel happy and grateful that we’re in a position to do that."

The vaccine is the first based on messenger RNA (mRNA), a type of genetic material, to receive approval for use in people and is 95 per cent effective at preventing Covid-19.

Prof Sahin rejected any attempts to smear the vaccine by anti-vax activists.

He said the technology was well understood and safe.

“The science behind mRNA vaccines is 30 years old and mRNA has been known for more than 50 years. The first clinical trials started more than 20 years ago,” he said.

 Prof. Dr. med. Ugur Sahin ist Wissenschaftler und verfügt über mehr als 60 unabhängige Patente in zahlreichen Bereichen wie Life Science und Biotechnologie und Dr. Özlem Türeci ist Medizinerin und hat über 20 Jahre Erfahrung in der Krebsforschung. Ihr Schwerpunkt liegt auf der Erforschung neuer immuntherapeutischer Wirkstoffe und der Entwicklung von Antikörpern und impfstoffbasierten Behandlungskonzepten für solide Tumore, Interview 02.05.2018 *** Prof Dr med Ugur Sahin is a scientist with more than 60 independent patents in a variety of fields, including life science and biotechnology. Dr Özlem Türeci is a physician with over 20 years of cancer research experience. Her focus is on research into new immunotherapeutic agents and development of Antibodies and Vaccine-Based Treatment Concepts for Solid Tumors Interview 02 05 2018No Use Switzerland. No Use Germany. No Use Japan. No Use Austria. Reuters
Covid vaccine researchers Ugur Sahin and his wife Dr Ozlem Tureci. Reuters

“In clinical trials the observation of patients is even more detailed. I don’t have concrete numbers how many people in the last 20 years have been vaccinated with mRNA [but] I assume it’s in the range of several thousand people.”

The vaccine was licensed for use on Tuesday by the UAE and the first vaccinations started in Dubai on Wednesday.

"I'm really happy about every region and this is a region well connected to our hearts," said Prof Sahin, 55, a German of Turkish origin who set up the Mainz-based BioNTech with his wife, Dr Ozlem Tureci, in 2008.

“I see this region as, I wouldn’t say as the Silicon Valley, but as the tech region of … the Near East and it’s important. We’ve been several times to Dubai, we have some friends there, so it’s connected."

First receivers of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in Dubai

First receivers of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in Dubai

Prof Sahin would not be drawn on the details of the vaccine programme in Dubai, such as how many doses will be delivered, as it is confidential. But it comes just days after Saudi Arabia started using the vaccine and as several other Gulf countries begin their introductions.

About 50 million doses are due to be supplied globally by the end of this year, with a further 1.4bn in 2021, just as governments across the world grapple with a pandemic that has killed more than 1.7 million people and caused huge economic turmoil.

The vaccine must be stored at minus 70°C and minus 80°C, raising concerns about its use in developing countries that lack cold-storage facilities.

However, Prof Sahin said that dry ice could be used for storage in boxes and the company was developing versions that would not need to be kept at such low temperatures.

“We’ve started, for example, to supply vaccines to Mexico. Mexico is not one of the poorest countries but it shows that it is possible because, at the end of the day, it’s just a box with dry ice, and dry ice transportation has been available for 50 years,” he said.

It is the second vaccine to be widely delivered in the UAE after China's Sinopharm vaccine.

More than 200 others are under development, dozens of which have reached clinical trials. Prof Sahin said he welcomed the arrival of other vaccines.

“To be frank, I hope that other vaccines come in as soon as possible,” he said. “I still see, from the very beginning, that this is a challenge for mankind and it requires different vaccines coming from different companies with ideally different technologies so that we don’t compete for the same material resources.”

The spread of a new, more infectious coronavirus strain in the UK and other countries has upended the world in recent days, just as a similar variant has come to account for most new cases in South Africa.

Prof Sahin said he was confident the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine would not be “significantly negatively impacted” and would continue to provide protection.

“The virus is still 99 per cent conserved, one per cent mutated and we have an attack from many, many different sides on this virus,” he said.

He said laboratory studies were underway to confirm that the vaccine was effective against the new strain and these would take two weeks to complete.

In any case, he said in principle it would take just six weeks to alter the vaccine but there might be regulatory hurdles to overcome before a revised version could be used.

After decades of research on mRNA vaccines, in recent days, a second mRNA vaccine, from Moderna, was given the green light by the US’s Food and Drug Administration.

With mRNA vaccines, the genetic material is injected into people, whose cells then manufacture harmless viral proteins. The body’s immune response to these provides protection against the coronavirus.

He indicated that it was only now, with unprecedented funding available, that it became possible to bring the mRNA technology to market.

“We had of course a game-changing situation … where people said, “OK, we’re going to pay two billion to get an mRNA vaccine done. There was no motivation before to do it in this way,” he said.

“So the risk-taking on the financial side was a completely different one, which opened up the door to go at maximum speed.”