BioNTech CEO says Covid-19 vaccine 'highly likely' to work on UK variant

Story by AP

German pharmaceutical company BioNTech is confident that its coronavirus vaccine works against the new UK variant, but further studies are needed to be completely sure, its chief executive said Tuesday.

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

"We don't know at the moment if our vaccine is also able to provide protection against this new variant," CEO Ugur Sahin told a news conference the day after the vaccine was approved 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 UK variant are 99% the same as on the prevailing strains, and therefore BioNTech has "scientific confidence" that its vaccine will be effective.

"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 do so in about 6 weeks, Sahin said, though regulators might have to approve the changes before the shots can be used.

Having to adjust the vaccine would be a blow for the rollout of immunization campaigns and the effort to rein in the pandemic that has so far killed more than 1.7 million people worldwide.

A nurse holds a phial of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Guy's Hospital in London. U.K. Biontech CEO Ugur Sahin says the German pharmaceutical company is confident that the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine works against the UK variant of the virus, but further studies are need to be completely sure.

BioNTech's vaccine, which was developed together with US pharmaceutical company Pfizer, has been authorized for use in more than 45 countries including Britain, the United States and the EU. Hundreds of thousands of people have already received the shots.

The companies submitted data to regulators showing the vaccine, which goes by the brand name COMIRNATY in Europe, is 95% effective in preventing infection with 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.

The company is distributing super-cooled batches of vaccine across the 27-nation bloc by truck and plane from a Pfizer plant in Belgium. The EU has ordered 200 million doses of the vaccine, with an option of 100 million more.

Marett said BioNTech is examining ways to deliver more than the 1.3 billion doses currently planned worldwide for 2021.

"As BioNTech we're always interested in looking at facilities that could help boost up production next year," he told The Associated Press, citing the recent acquisition of a plant in Germany from Novartis. "We would be looking to do very quick transactions if we can."

BioNTech expects demand for Covid vaccines to continue in the future.

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An Iraqi man, wearing a protective mask due to the COVID-19 pandemic, walks past a Santa Claus figure displayed outside a shop in Baghdad's Tahrir (Liberation) Square, on December 11, 2020. (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP) (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - 2020/12/07: A man wearing a face mask as a protective measure against the spread coronavirus (COVID-19) walks past a placard saying There is no Safety Zone, We must stop before COVID-19 stop everything. 615 coronavirus cases were confirmed by Korea Centers for Disease Control (KCDC) on 7 December. (Photo by Simon Shin/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A woman wearing a face mask as a precaution against the coronavirus passes by wall mural of a shopping center in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Dec. 7, 2020. South Korea's health minister said Monday that the Seoul metropolitan area is now a "COVID-19 war zone," as the country reported another 615 new infections and the virus appeared to be spreading faster. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
A picture taken on December 7, 2020 on the Malieveld, in The Hague shows shirts of amateur clubs displayed on the grass during a demonstration called by the KNVB sports association to draw the government attention on the amateur football practice amidst the new coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Sem van der Wal / ANP / AFP) / Netherlands OUT (Photo by SEM VAN DER WAL/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)
CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA - DECEMBER 07: The South Africa Team bus is pictures outside of the Vinyard Hotel where the South Africa and England Cricket Teams are currently staying after an announcement that the Cricket Tour between the two teams has been abandoned following a series of Positive Coronavirus Tests on December 07, 2020 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - DECEMBER 7, 2020: People on swings in Triumfalnaya Square in central Moscow during the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Sergei Karpukhin/TASS (Photo by Sergei Karpukhin\TASS via Getty Images)
Workers shovel soil over a coffin during a funeral ceremony for a person who died of COVID-19, in the northern city of Thessaloniki, Greece, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. Greece is on lockdown until Dec. 7 but government officials say it is too early to say when schools and businesses will reopen due to continued pressure on the state-run health service, with intensive care wards near capacity in parts of the country. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)
Russian medical worker, right, administers a shot of Russia's Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. Thousands of doctors, teachers and others in high-risk groups have signed up for COVID-19 vaccinations in Moscow starting Saturday, a precursor to a sweeping Russia-wide immunization effort. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
December 4th 2020: Record high closings for all three major market indexes on Wall Street as the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the S&P 500 stock market index and the NASDAQ Composite index each closed at new all-time highs. - File Photo by: zz/STRF/STAR MAX/IPx 2020 7/18/20 Atmosphere in and around Wall Street and The New York Stock Exchange in the Financial District of Lower Manhattan, New York City on July 18, 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic amid the aftermath of protests, demonstrations, riots, vandalism and destruction of property in response to the death of George Floyd who died while being arrested by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25th. Here, The Fearless Girl bronze sculpture wearing a face mask located across from The New York Stock Exchange Building. (NYC)
ANKARA, TURKEY - DECEMBER 05: Citizens arrive at grocery stores, bakeries, markets and pharmacies on duty from the exceptional workplaces close to their homes, after a general curfew imposed weekend-long from Friday 9 p.m. to Monday 5 a.m. local time within new measures against a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, in Ankara, Turkey on December 05, 2020. (Photo by Mehmet Kaman/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Iraqi Christian children, wearing protective masks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, attend their First Communion ceremony at Mart Shmoni church in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on December 4, 2020. (Photo by SAFIN HAMED / AFP) (Photo by SAFIN HAMED/AFP via Getty Images)
KALININGRAD, RUSSIA - DECEMBER 4, 2020: A nurse fills in a syringe as she prepares to give a serviceman of the Russian Navy's Baltic Fleet the Russian Sputnik V vaccine during COVID-19 vaccination. Vitaly Nevar/TASS (Photo by Vitaly Nevar\TASS via Getty Images)
04 December 2020, Saxony, Seiffen: An officer of the riot police stops a vehicle at the edge of the town. On the first Advent weekend there had been a real rush of visitors in the Christmas town of Seiffen in the Erzgebirge mountains. Only residents of the neighbouring districts are still allowed to visit the town. Photo: Jan Woitas/dpa-Zentralbild/dpa (Photo by Jan Woitas/picture alliance via Getty Images)
VIENNA, AUSTRIA - DECEMBER 04: Citizens arrive at mass Covid-19 testing centers in Vienna, Austria on December 04, 2020. In Austria, a mass testing for the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic which will take 9 days has begun throughout the country. In Vienna, the city municipality transformed the indoor concert hall, fairground and a show center into mass testing centers. (Photo by Askin Kiyagan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - DECEMBER 4: A view from Istiklal Avenue of Beyoglu district in Istanbul, Turkey on December 4, 2020. New additional measures on Covid-19 have been taken for Taksim Square and surroundings, which are among the places with the highest density of people in Istanbul. As part of the measures, barriers were placed at the square and tunnel entrances of the street, and citizens were asked to walk from the right of the street with the help of landmarks. Within new measures taken on Istiklal Avenue, 7,000 people can be situated at the same time. (Photo by Elif Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Filipinos wearing masks and face shields for protection against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) walk along a street market in Manila, Philippines, December 3, 2020. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A health care worker collects a swab sample from a man during a rapid antigen test for army members and volunteers before the start of a mass test of Vienna's population, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Vienna, Austria, December 3, 2020. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
People holds mannequin heads with wigs, at a commemoration for a 24 years old hairdresser Alysson, who committed suicide after her newly opened hair salon had to close due to the coronavirus lockdown on December 2, 2020 in Charleroi. (Photo by VIRGINIE LEFOUR / BELGA / AFP) / Belgium OUT (Photo by VIRGINIE LEFOUR/BELGA/AFP via Getty Images)
This picture taken in Thessaloniki on December 2, 2020 shows funeral wreaths on new graves of Covid-19 victims in a cemetery of Thessaloniki. - The municipality of Thessaloniki expand the cemeteries to provide space for the victims of coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic after the increase of deaths in November 2020. (Photo by Sakis MITROLIDIS / AFP) (Photo by SAKIS MITROLIDIS/AFP via Getty Images)
BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - DECEMBER 02: A sign warns people to wear mask in open public areas is seen as coronavirus (Covid-19) restriction currently in force, in the capital city Brussels, Belgium on December 02, 2020. (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

"This virus is not going to go away," Marett told The AP. "It'll be there at least for the next decade, and therefore it's important that if people so choose, they should get vaccinated."

It's also still unclear how long the immunity conferred by a vaccine lasts.

"It's quite possible that we will need to give a booster injection," Marett said. "So a repeat injection, maybe as frequently as one year, maybe every two years. We don't know yet."

Several EU countries have said they plan to start vaccinating on 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.

Germany is among the European countries that have banned flights from the UK because of the new variant 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 centre , said it was very likely the U.K. 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."

A leading German virologist who was initially skeptical about reports that the strain was much more contagious voiced concern after seeing further data. Christian Drosten, a professor of virology at Berlin's Charite hospital, tweeted that "unfortunately it doesn't look good."

But Drosten added: "What is positive is that cases with the mutation so far only increased in areas where the overall incidence was high or rising. So contact reduction also works against the spread of the mutation."

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