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BioNTech boss confident vaccine will work on Britain’s new coronavirus strain

A nurse prepares to administer the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in London.
(Frank Augstein / Pool photo)

The CEO of German pharmaceutical firm BioNTech is confident that the COVID-19 vaccine his company developed with Pfizer will work against the new coronavirus strain spreading in Britain and causing alarm around the world.

The variant, detected mainly in London and the southeast of England in recent weeks, has sparked concern because of signs that it may spread more easily. While there is no indication that it causes more serious illness, numerous countries in Europe and beyond have restricted travel from Britain as a result.

“We don’t know at the moment if our vaccine is also able to provide protection against this new variant,” BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin told a news conference Tuesday, one day after the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was authorized for use in the European Union. “But scientifically, it is highly likely that the immune response by this vaccine also can deal with the new virus variants.”

Sahin said that the proteins on the British variant are 99% the same as on the prevailing coronavirus strains, and therefore BioNTech has “scientific confidence” that its vaccine will be effective.

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“But we will know it only if the experiment is done, and we will need about two weeks from now to get the data,” he said. “The likelihood that our vaccine works ... is relatively high.”

Should the vaccine need to be adjusted for the new variant, the company could make the change in about six weeks, Sahin said, though regulators might have to approve the modifications before the shots can be used.

In beleaguered Britain, Brexit is coming, Christmas is pretty much canceled and a new strain of the coronavirus brings near-pariah status. What next?

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been authorized for use in more than 45 countries, including Britain, the U.S. and the EU’s 27 member nations. Hundreds of thousands of people have already received the shots.

The companies submitted data to regulators showing that the vaccine is 95% effective in preventing COVID-19.

“All countries across the EU that have requested doses will receive them in the next five days, the very initial supply, and that will be followed up next week with further supplies,” said Sean Marett, BioNTech’s chief commercial officer.

Several European countries have said they plan to start vaccinating Sunday. Germany’s health minister, Jens Spahn, said he expects the country to receive more than 1.3 million doses by the end of this year.

If the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech was good enough to get a nod from the FDA, the vaccine from Moderna and the NIH almost certainly is as well.

Germany is among the scores of countries, from Canada to India, that have banned flights from Britain because of the new strain of the coronavirus there. “We want to avoid for as long as we can that a possibly dangerous virus variant spreads to continental Europe,” said Spahn.

But Lothar Wieler, the head of Germany’s national disease control center, said it was very likely the British variant is already circulating in Germany.

Wieler, who heads the Robert Koch Institute, said it was common for viruses’ genetic material to change, and that can affect how transmissible they are.

“Whether that is really the case with the variant in England is not yet entirely clear,” Wieler said. “What is clear is that the more widely viruses spread, the more opportunity they have to change.”


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