The CEO of German pharmaceutical company BioNTech has said he is confident that its coronavirus vaccine works against the new UK variant, but that more studies are needed to be sure.
Uğur Şahin told a press conference that his team had been working to try to find out if the vaccine worked in the UK variant or if it would need to be adapted. The results will be known in two weeks, he said.
“We do not know at the moment if our vaccine can also provide protection against this new variant,” Şahin said a day after the vaccine was approved for use in the European Union. “But scientifically, it is very likely that the immune response of this vaccine can also cope with the new variants of the virus.”
Şahin said the UK variant proteins were 99% the same as the predominant strains and therefore BioNTech had “scientific confidence” that their vaccine would be effective. “We believe there is no reason to worry or worry.”
If the vaccine needs to be adjusted for the new variant, the company could do so in about six weeks, Şahin said, although regulators may have to approve the changes before the vaccines can be used.
BioNTech’s vaccine, developed with the US pharmaceutical company Pfizer, has been licensed for use in more than 45 countries, including Great Britain and the United States.
How does the Pfizer / BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine work?
The Pfizer / BioNTech Covid vaccine is an mRNA vaccine. Essentially, mRNA is a molecule used by living cells to convert the sequences of genes in DNA into proteins that are the building blocks of all its fundamental structures. A segment of DNA is copied (“transcribed”) into a fragment of mRNA, which in turn is “read” by the cell’s tools to synthesize proteins.
In the case of an mRNA vaccine, the mRNA of the virus is injected into the muscle and our own cells read it and synthesize the viral protein. The immune system reacts to these proteins, which by themselves cannot cause disease, as if they had been transmitted by the entire virus. This generates a protective response that studies suggest lasts for some time.
The first two Covid-19 vaccines that announced the results of the three phase 3 trials were based on mRNA. They were the first to get out of the blocks because, as soon as the genetic code of Sars-CoV-2 was known, it was published by the Chinese in January 2020: companies that had been working on this technology were able to start producing the virus mRNA. Making conventional vaccines takes much longer.
Adam Finn, Professor of Pediatrics at the Bristol Children’s Vaccine Center, University of Bristol
The variant, detected mainly in London and south-east England in recent weeks, has raised concerns around the world due to signs that it may spread more easily. While there is no indication that it causes a more serious illness, as a result several countries in Europe and beyond have restricted travel from the UK.
On Tuesday, Germany extended its ban on passenger flights from the UK, now banning the arrival of passengers by train, bus and boat. Health Minister Jens Spahn said the expanded measure took effect at midnight, a day after the flights were stopped.
Germany has applied similar measures to South Africa, where a new variant of the coronavirus has also been detected. The measures apply until January 6, although there are exceptions for the transport of goods and mail, and for medical and humanitarian flights.
Spahn said: “We want to prevent a potentially dangerous virus variant from spreading to continental Europe for as long as possible.”
However, Lothar Wieler, director of Germany’s national center for disease control, said the UK variant was likely already circulating in Germany.
Wieler, who heads the Robert Koch Institute, said it was common for the genetic material of viruses to change, and that this could affect their ability to transmit.
“It is not entirely clear yet whether that is really the case for the variant in England,” Wieler said. “What is clear is that the more viruses spread, the more opportunities they have to change.”
A prominent German virologist who was initially skeptical about reports that the strain was more transmissible expressed concern after seeing more data. Christian Drosten, professor of virology at the Charité hospital in Berlin, tweeted that “sadly it doesn’t look good.”
But he added: “The good news is that cases with the mutation so far only increased in areas where the overall incidence was high or increasing. Therefore, reducing the contact also works against the spread of the mutation. “
Addressing the situation at the UK borders, BioNTech’s commercial and business director Sean Marrett said he did not anticipate problems getting supplies of the vaccine to the UK. “There are not just routes through the Channel Tunnel,” he said.
Reuters contributed to this report
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