What does the award mean?
For us as scientists the award is one of the most prestigious accolades to receive. It represents the noblest goal of science: the advancement and well-being of humanity. I am honored and grateful to have been able to contribute to this noble goal together with my colleagues. It is an acknowledgment of our contribution and a reminder that our work is not done yet. I will continue to dedicate my work to the vision of improving the health of people around the world.
How were vaccines manufactured in such a short time?
Being able to develop a vaccine in less than a year has been possible for two reasons: The first is our decade-long research on mRNA vaccines. Initially, my wife, Özlem Türeci, and I, and then together with our BioNTech team, we have been working on mRNA vaccines for over 20 years. We have been successful in developing highly potent mRNA vaccine technologies that allow small amounts of vaccine mRNA to elicit strong immune responses. In addition, we have established tools that allow us to develop, produce and test mRNA vaccines in a matter of weeks. With these tools, we have already produced hundreds of cancer vaccines. When faced with the coronavirus outbreak, we were able to leverage our mRNA vaccine technology and expertise. We quickly launched an mRNA vaccine research program in which multiple mRNA vaccine candidates were developed, manufactured and tested in parallel. The other reason is the international collaborative effort dedicated to developing a safe and effective vaccine. Last year’s tremendous achievement was the result of a global effort by governments, regulators, international institutions, businesses, and the scientific community coming together. Together, we made the seemingly impossible possible. They all worked with the same goal and concentrated resources. This allowed us to develop vaccines in the shortest time possible without shortcuts. What we have learned in the past year will help us address existing and potential health threats in the future.
Did you imagine that your work would have an application like this?
He was convinced that mRNA was suitable for fighting a pandemic. It is accurate, flexible, easy to customize, and the production cycle is short and scalable, which is why I chose mRNA 20 years ago to develop individualized cancer vaccines. For cancer patients, every day counts. The vaccine must be adapted and produced quickly. The immune response must be powerful to fight tumor growth. These are exactly the characteristics that made our technology ideal to fight the pandemic as well. I felt it was my duty to use our technology and knowledge to make a difference. However, as a scientist, you can never be sure of success when faced with a completely new situation. The scientific community didn’t know much about SARS-CoV-2, the enemy we all wanted to defeat. It was not clear if a vaccine would work and if the pandemic would end when we received a vaccine. Against these uncertainties, we began testing 20 vaccine candidates to identify the best ones and took four of them into clinical trials. In the end, the data from our candidate BNT162b2 confirmed what we had dreamed of: high efficacy and a favorable safety profile. The day the phase 3 data was released was a great day for science and humanity.
There will be new epidemics and pandemics …
I think that the world is better positioned than ever to solve global health problems through science, technology and innovation. Quick access to information enables faster vaccine development. During the pandemic, the world shared more information than ever about vaccine development and the virus and established new ways to make data accessible to all, for example through prepress servers. And an established manufacturing network means a faster increase in production capacity. Today, at BioNTech we have a global network of experts for the development and production of vaccines. This infrastructure was built and expanded over the past year. In 2019 we had the capacity to manufacture about 10,000 doses of vaccines. We currently plan to manufacture three billion doses this year. If we act as a global community with the same goal and guided by data and science, we will be in an ideal position to address future threats to health.
What have we learned?
The pandemic It has accelerated technological trends and structural changes that will help improve global health and society. Researchers, developers and entrepreneurs know the importance of openness towards innovations, as well as the culture of failure to take new paths and dare to innovate. In addition, scientific talent around entrepreneurship should also be fostered. They need to have the opportunity to thrive and excel. In recent years, much has already been done, and the pandemic has shown what is possible when the public sector and entrepreneurs work together. We must maintain this momentum, and now we must continue to harness it to jointly forge a brighter future for humanity.
Is there no science without collaboration?
Indeed. A single person or a single institution cannot solve a global problem. What this pandemic has taught us more than anything is that collaboration is the key to success. All efforts to address this pandemic have been the result of unprecedented international collaboration between the scientific community, the business sector, clinics, regulators, governments. and all the other organizations and industries that came together to make vaccines available as quickly as possible. Without this global effort, we would not have been able to develop, license and manufacture a vaccine in less than a year, the fastest development of a vaccine in history.