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BIOTECH

BioNTech: Four things to know about the German firm leading the Covid-19 vaccine race

The small German biotech firm BiOnTech, started by a husband and wife team with Turkish roots is in the world's press due a vaccine breakthrough. Here's what you need to know.

BioNTech: Four things to know about the German firm leading the Covid-19 vaccine race
Uğur Şahin, who founded BioNTech with his wife Özlem Türeci, in November 2019. Photo: DPA

BioNTech has never brought a vaccine to market before.But its experimental technology has now put it in pole position in the  global race to develop a jab that will end the coronavirus crisis.

Along with its US partner Pfizer, BioNTech announced on Monday that their vaccine has proved 90 percent effective in ongoing Phase 3 trials, paving the way for them to apply for emergency use approval.

READ ALSO: Covid-19 vaccine found to be '90 percent effective', says German biotech firm

Cancer pioneer

Mainz-based BioNTech was co-founded in 2008 by Uğur Şahin and his wife Özlem Türeci, both scientists and the children of Turkish immigrants to Germany, as well as Austrian cancer expert Christoph Huber.

In normal times, BioNTech and its roughly 1,500 employees are focused on developing specialised immunotherapies for cancer patients based on “messenger RNA” (mRNA) molecules that trigger the building of proteins in cells, to stimulate the immune system.

It's this same technology, which has the benefit that it can be developed more quickly than traditional vaccines, that lies at the heart of its Covid-19 shot.

The vaccine would introduce synthetic mRNA into the human body to trick the immune system into producing the viral proteins needed to provoke a safe but robust offensive against the coronavirus.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED – How Germany is preparing for the coronavirus vaccination

Early in the starting blocks

Şahin, 54, jumped into action in January shortly after reading about the emergence of a new and deadly coronavirus in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

By the time much of the planet was in lockdown in March, BioNTech had developed 20 vaccine candidates based on mRNA technology, he told Der Spiegel weekly.

Those were eventually whittled down to a handful of the most promising options, with vaccine BNT162b2 now becoming the frontrunner.

Teaming up with Pfizer

Having struck a deal with US pharma giant Pfizer to work together to develop mRNA-based flu vaccines in 2018, teaming up on a potential coronavirus vaccine was an obvious next move for BioNTech, which has yet to bring one of its ideas to market.

The two companies announced in March that they aimed to jointly develop a Covid-19 jab, “pairing Pfizer's development, regulatory and commercial capabilities with BioNTech's mRNA vaccine technology and expertise”, they said at the time.

While global headlines tend to lead with Pfizer's involvement, Şahin insisted to Spiegel: “It is our technology.”

The cooperation is a good fit because it allows BioNTech “to develop and distribute a possible vaccine in the shortest time possible”, he added.

A lab employee in BioNTech's headquarters in Mainz. Photo: DPA

Global rollout

The BNT162b2 vaccine, if approved, would require two jabs to be effective.

BioNTech and Pfizer have said they expect to supply up to 50 million vaccine doses globally in 2020, and up to 1.3 billion in 2021.

In a clear sign that they were gearing up for mass production, BioNTech in September bought a manufacturing site in Marburg in western Germany from Swiss pharma group Novartis, along with its 300 employees, allowing it to produce
millions of additional doses each year.

BioNTech already has two other production sites in Germany, while at least four Pfizer sites in the United States and Europe will join in the unprecedented effort to roll out a vaccine at record speed.

The EU and a slew of countries including the US, Japan and Britain have already placed orders for millions of doses of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine as nations eagerly await the regulatory nods, which could see the jab become available before year-end.

BioNTech has also struck a deal with Shanghai-based Fosun Pharmaceutical Group, which will have the exclusive rights to bring the vaccine to China.

By Sophie Makris

Member comments

  1. This has to be a joke, right?
    Come on! They cant even eradicate the seasonal flu, but you’re gonna tell me now they have a Vaccine for Covid-19 after only less than a year. This is a sham. People need to wake up!

  2. The seasonal flu is not one but multiple virus strains that mutate each year. That is why you cannot have a one size fits all vaccine.

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CULTURE

‘People liked the silence’: How Berlin’s club scene is struggling after lockdowns

Berlin's clubs are suffering from staff shortages, a lack of guests... and neighbours who've grown used to the silence, representatives for the scene say.

'People liked the silence': How Berlin's club scene is struggling after lockdowns

Some operators from Berlin’s club scene are bracing themselves for a difficult autumn. For months now, people have been allowed to dance again and life has returned to normal in the dark corners of Berlin’s famous nightlife scene.

But the clubs have far from recovered from the pandemic. They face staff shortages, rising prices and the prospect of a return to Covid restrictions in the autumn.

“We go into the autumn with huge fear, because the omens are totally unfavorable,” said association head Pamela Schobeß.

Spring and summer went anything but smoothly, she said. “There has been an oversupply of events. People aren’t going out as much, and some are still afraid to move around indoors.”

Money is also an issue. “A lot of people are afraid of rising energy prices.”

The industry lost workers during the pandemic and it’s hard to convince them to come back with the outlook for the autumn looking so gloomy, Schobeß says.

Her colleague Robin Schellenberg tells a similar story. People have switched to various other jobs and would even rather work on a supermarket checkout, which may have been considered less sexy in the past. Now, he says, some have learned to love not having to work nights.

READ ALSO: 

Schellenberg runs the Klunkerkranich, a small club on a parking garage deck in Neukölln. Because a number of things have become more expensive, they have also had to increase their admission prices.

His impression is that people are going out less often and are deciding more spontaneously. In addition, people in the neighborhood are now more sensitive to noise. “Many people found the silence very enticing,” he said.

Some in the industry wonder what will happen next. Will club admission have to become much more expensive? Will that exclude people who can no longer afford it? And what happens if Covid infection numbers rise sharply?

If masks become mandatory indoors in October, Schobeß believes that would be bad for the clubs. “Even if we don’t get shut down by the state, we’ll actually have to close down independently ourselves,” she reckons.

Masks take all the joy out of the experience, she says. People have drinks in their hands and are “jumping around and dancing” and then security guards have to tell them “please put your mask on.”

The federal government is considering whether states should be able to make masks mandatory indoors starting in October. Exceptions should be possible, such as at cultural and sporting events, for people who have been tested, recently vaccinated and recently recovered.

In the event that Covid numbers soar, the states could then be allowed to tighten the rules and eliminate all exemptions.

READ ALSO: German court declares techno to be music

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