Home World BioNTech’s boss, Ugur Shahin, is still willing to refer to Omicron

BioNTech’s boss, Ugur Shahin, is still willing to refer to Omicron


The head of the company that invented the first effective vaccine against the virus that causes Covid-19, refuses to panic about the spread of Omicron, its latest version. “Personally, the situation does not scare me. We expected that there would be such an option, ”Ugur Shahin said The Economist in an interview. He is the co-founder and CEO of BioNTech, a German company that produced the vaccine in partnership with the American company Pfizer.

Mr Sahin’s relative optimism contrasts with the tone of anticipation expressed by the competing vaccine company, Moderna, whose CEO Stefan Bansel said. Financial Times this week that there will be a “significant drop” in vaccine effectiveness. Mr Bansel’s remarks, made the day after the World Health Organization warned that Omicron posed a “very high global risk”, further depressed stock markets around the world.

Both men admit that the world remains very ignorant about Omicron. But Mr Shahin balances that with confidence. He explains that even if Omicron overcomes the antibody response, the first layer of direct protection against the virus, it is known that the immune system can fall off to the second layer, which involves T cells. They attack infected cells to stop the virus from multiplying.

Mr Shahin also sought to allay concerns that the vaccinated population would become severely ill if infected with Omicron, although he could not completely eradicate them. He says his “scientific expectation” is that vaccinated people with vaccinations should only get mild to moderate if they get Omicron.

Despite this, much is still unknown about Omicron. BioNTech said Nov. 26 that it would consider the option for two weeks before deciding whether a new vaccine is needed. The firm is testing the existing wording against Omicron in the lab. It differs significantly from previously observed options. It has about 50 mutations, more than 30 of which are its thorny protein, a structure that strengthens the surface of the virus and allows it to attach and insert its genome into human cells. It is this thorn protein that is used in the development of vaccines.

Mr. Shahin also stressed the importance of revaccination. He says it is possible that people with the booster will be protected, but those who have only two injections of the vaccine may not be. As the virus spreads, BioNTech will collect data from people infected with Omicron who have received one, two or three doses of the vaccine. These data will allow Mr. Sahin and his team to calculate the extent to which the risks posed by Omicron are related to vaccination status. The big question is whether even a booster will suffice.

It is unknown at this time what he will do after leaving the post. There is no reason to think that the virus will stop mutating, says Mr Sahin. The advent of Omicron confirms the idea that the vaccine will need to be updated every year or two and that people will need to be revaccinated regularly.

He emphasizes the importance of boosters. Britain this week reduced the required period between the second vaccine and the revaccination to three months. Germany cut it from six to five months before the world discovered Omicron, and can now cut it even further.

BioNTech works closely with regulators – the US Food and Drug Administration and the European Medicines Agency. Clinical trials of vaccines tuned to earlier options are currently underway to establish the principle that you do not need comprehensive tests for each vaccine change. Despite this, only a new vaccine may appear in March or April – and by then we can hope that the worst of the fourth wave will end.

At the same time, one of these earlier options, Delta, is hitting Europe very hard. To protect the entire continent from the delta, Mr. Shahin estimated that 86% of the population would need antibodies, as one person infected with the delta infects an average of seven others. Omicron can be even more contagious: assuming that, say, one infected person transmits it to an average of 12 others, 92% of the population will need antibodies to keep the population immune. (In Germany, 68.5% of people are double. Others have acquired immunity through infection.)

On November 30, Chancellor Angela Merkel and her successor, Olaf Scholz, met online with heads of state to discuss further action against the pandemic. Mr Scholz is reportedly in favor of adhering to Austria in adopting mandatory national vaccination. Mr. Shahin will not say whether he supports it. But he warns that Covid-19 will be long, and that the options in the Greek alphabet will be more than letters. After Omicron may be Pi. And new options won’t necessarily be softer.

To read more about the Omicron option, visit our collection of recent stories.


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