LONDON — The co-founder and chief medical officer of BioNTech, the German firm which developed a Covid-19 vaccine alongside Pfizer, told CNBC that the world “should not live in fear” of the virus.
“Covid will become manageable. It already has started to become manageable” Dr. Ozlem Tureci said in the latest episode of “The CNBC Conversation.”
However, she added that we will “need to go back to a new normality, because this virus will accompany us for, still, some years.”
Asked about concerns over new coronavirus variants, she said BioNTech “continuously assess those upcoming variants, and there will be more.”
“For all these variants which are currently circulating, it seems that boosters alone, bringing the waning immune responses back to high levels, are suitable and do protect,” she said.
“However, we have to continue to screen because there might be variants upcoming for which this is not the case. And for this we have a second pillar, namely that we prepare ourselves to be quick and fast in the case that we need to adapt to a variant … And we are doing those dry runs, not alone, together with regulators, so that they are also prepared for the potential need to switch,” Tureci told CNBC.
Tureci co-founded German-based BioNTech in 2008 with her husband, Chief Executive Ugur Sahin. She said that more data was needed to guide the path out of the pandemic, but she could imagine future boosters could be given “every 12 or every 18 months.”
Covid vaccine in under a year
The company’s main focus had been on “pioneering individualized immunotherapies” for cancer medicine and using its mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid) technology, which stimulates the body’s own immune response. It is also working on developing a vaccine for Malaria.
“So we had, already, the science and the knowledge about immune mechanisms and how they can be used against viruses and could leverage that,” Tureci said.
“And the other pillar of our response was our technology, the mRNA technology, which allows [it] to be used as a vaccine format, which means it allows [it] to communicate with the immune system and teach it how to respond against this new enemy with high precision.”
“And this technology, because we had used it in clinical trials in cancer patients, was already ripe. We knew how to conduct clinical trials with it, how to treat humans with it, and how to set up a manufacturing process,” she added.
The company’s experience meant it was able to develop a vaccine in under a year.
Asked if this could be the case for all other vaccines going forward, Tureci told CNBC there had been “high prioritization which was required for this global threat,” but that there were lessons which could be learned and taken forward.
“There are a couple of things which, I think, if we transfer them into future drug developments can help us to be quicker. Also, for example, for non-pandemic infections, but also for cancer and autoimmune diseases,” she said.
Natural gender balance
With the Oxford–AstraZeneca Covid vaccine also led by female scientists, Tureci feels such high-profile examples of gender balance in science is “very important” and has been one of the reasons behind BioNTech’s success.
“I actually truly believe that one of the secrets why we have been successful as a team and as a company is that we are a gender-balanced team. Almost half of our workforce is female and also on the top management level, half of our teams are female,” she said.
“However, what I also realize is that in our teams we don’t recruit women because we want to fulfil any gender quota, it comes naturally … And it simply turns out that half of them are women,” she continued.