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BioNTech says Covid vaccine is effective against key new strains; to publish more data in days

The CEO of German pharmaceutical company BioNTech has said he remains confident the company’s Covid vaccine, developed in partnership with Pfizer, will be effective against the highly-infectious variants of the virus discovered in the U.K. and South Africa.

“We are confident that based on the mechanism of our vaccine, even though there are mutations, we believe that the immune response which is induced by our vaccine could also deal with (a) mutated virus,” Dr. Ugur Sahin, co-founder and CEO of BioNTech, told CNBC’s Meg Tirrell on Monday.

“Last week, we reported another mutation which is present in the U.K. variant and also in the South African variant and this mutation is considered to be important because it could change structurally the protein. But it appears the immune response against our vaccine also neutralizes this mutation.”

His comments referred to research published Thursday that showed Pfizer-BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine appeared to be effective against a key mutation in the more infectious variants of the virus discovered in the U.K. and South Africa.

The study, conducted by U.S. pharma giant Pfizer and not yet peer-reviewed, suggested the vaccine worked to neutralize the so-called N501Y mutation. This mutation has been reported in the coronavirus variants discovered in the U.K. and South Africa.

The variants, which originated separately, both share a genetic mutation of the so-called spike protein, which the virus uses to gain entry into cells within the body.

Physicians tentatively welcomed the findings of the study last week but cautioned it was important to note the research only focused on the N501Y mutation found in both new variants.

BioNTech’s Sahin said the company would be able to present more data looking at the full set of mutations in the coming days.

New vaccine could be ready ‘within six weeks’

Like Moderna’s, Pfizer-BioNTech’s Covid vaccine uses messenger RNA, or mRNA, technology. In practice, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says this “teaches our cells how to make a protein — or even just a piece of a protein— that triggers an immune response inside our bodies.”

The resulting immune response produces antibodies that help to protect people from becoming infected with the virus.

Ugur Sahin, co-founder and CEO of Biontech, stands on the company premises. Biontech is a biotechnology company that is researching, among other things, vaccines against the coronavirus. (Photo by Andreas Arnold/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Andreas Arnold | picture alliance via Getty Images

When asked how quickly BioNTech could pivot if it turned out the existing Covid vaccine was found to be ineffective against new variants, Sahin said “one key advantage” of the mRNA technology was that it would allow the company to adapt the vaccine “relatively quickly.”

“We can change the sequence of the vaccine within a few days and we could deliver a new vaccine within six weeks in principle. This is technically possible, and if this is needed, we would go for that,” he said, noting that this would also require discussions with regulatory authorities such as the Food and Drug Administration.

“So, we are confident that the technology we would allow us to be extremely fast in responding to a mutation or a to a virus variant that comes with different problems,” Sahin said.

Public health experts have expressed concern the new mutant strains could pose a threat to inoculation efforts. In recent weeks, optimism about the mass rollout of Covid vaccines has been tempered by the resurgent rate of virus spread worldwide.

To date, more than 90.3 million people have contracted the coronavirus worldwide, with 1.93 million deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.