BioNTech chief predicts need for updated Covid vaccines next year

Ugur Sahin says the virus is very likely to mutate and evade immunity given by current jabs

Dr Ugur Sahin, who along with his wife Dr Ozlem Tureci founded the German company BioNTech. Photograph: BioNTech via PA

Dr Ugur Sahin, who along with his wife Dr Ozlem Tureci founded the German company BioNTech. Photograph: BioNTech via PA

 

The chief executive of the biotech behind the first Covid-19 vaccine has said a new formulation is likely to be needed by the middle of next year to protect against the virus as it mutates.

Ugur Sahin, chief executive of BioNTech, told the Financial Times that as time passes, mutations will emerge that can evade the body’s immune defences. “This year [a different vaccine] is completely unneeded. But by mid next year, it could be a different situation,” he predicted.

A partnership between the German biotech and US pharmaceutical company Pfizer brought the first Covid-19 vaccine to market. It was also the first vaccine based on mRNA technology to win regulatory approval, and has been the world’s best-selling drug this year.

In an interview with the FT, Sahin said the Covid-19 variants currently in circulation, particularly the Delta strain, were more contagious but not different enough to undermine the effectiveness of current vaccines.

Booster shots seem able to tackle the main variants, Sahin said. But the virus will eventually develop mutations that can escape the immune response bestowed by the vaccine, he said, necessitating a “tailored” version to specifically target the new strain.

“This virus will stay, and the virus will further adapt,” he said. “We have no reason to assume that the next generation virus will be easier to handle for the immune system than the existing generation. This is a continuous evolution, and that evolution has just started.”

By next year, there will be two main streams to vaccination programmes, Sahin predicted. There will be booster shots for those who have already been vaccinated, as well as a continued push to vaccinate people that have had minimal access so far.

Pfizer and BioNTech and other Covid-19 vaccine makers have been under pressure from developing countries and aid groups to share patents to allow vaccines to be more widely produced. Sahin rejected patent-sharing as a risk to quality control. Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla has argued it would disincentivise innovation.

Pharma groups have attempted to address concerns by offering to widen access to the vaccine and invest in production in regions such as Africa, where last month Pfizer and BioNTech announced plans to develop a “fill-and-finish” manufacturing plant in Cape Town.

Sahin declined to offer any forecasts of how the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine would be priced in the future, but said he expected it would still be needed in the coming years.

The US announced in September that it would buy another 500 million doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine at not-for-profit rates to give to lower-income countries. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021