Scientists from BioNTech and Astra Zeneca which are at the bleeding edge of coronavirus vaccine development revealed little known details of the origin stories of their frantic race that began early this year, at a United Nations Covid-19 summit on Friday.
BioNTech founder Ugur Sahin remembers the precise moment when he imagined the coming catastrophe. “It was on January 24, Friday evening, I was reading a paper from Lancet,” he said, pressing the rewind button as the world waits anxiously for the first vaccinations to begin.
The Lancet paper described the travels and infection pattern of a Chinese family. Increasingly alarmed by what he read in the “extremely accurate and informative” paper, Sahin went and looked at the airport connections from and to Wuhan. In a flash, he knew he was looking at a coming apocalypse.
On the first working day after the weekend, Sahin and colleagues agreed that plans had to change and “we can’t continue just to do our business on cancer vaccine development”.
“We have to start the development of a vaccine, and then start with a number of candidates.”
From that day on, BioNTech scientists began working weekends on voluntary basis and in effect, a 24/7 work cycle was set in motion which culminated in the world’s first greenlight for a Covid vaccine, by UK, just last week.
BioNTech use of gene technology to beat the virus was key to the rapid development of the Pfizer vaccine which British regulators okayed for emergency use.
BioNTech specialises in the so-called messenger RNA platform technology where the mRNA trains the immune system to attack hostile invaders, from viruses to tumours.