Dec 22, 2020 - Health

BioNTech says it could produce vaccine for COVID-19 variant in 6 weeks if needed

Photo: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin told the Financial Times his company could produce a new vaccine to combat mutations of COVID-19 within six weeks using the technology from its current vaccine, which was developed with Pfizer.

Driving the news: Concerns have mounted after the U.K. and World Health Organization said they have identified a new variant of COVID-19 in England that appears to be 70% more transmissible. U.S. officials have said the chances the new strain will make current vaccines less effective are "extremely low."

  • Sahin said it would take two weeks to definitively prove in the laboratory whether the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine would still work as effectively on the new strain.
  • But 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,” Sahin told the FT.

How it works: The new variant has multiple mutations, but most of the sites that trigger immune response have not mutated, Sahin 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," he added.
  • “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,” said BioNTech chief medical officer Ozlem Tureci.
  • The speed of the rollout would then be up to regulators.

The state of play: Distribution of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has already been begun in the U.S., U.K., Canada and Israel. The European Commission granted authorization for the vaccine on Monday.

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