'Dream Team' Couple Helped Develop New Vaccine

Huge challenges will await after approval
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 9, 2020 3:23 PM CST
'Dream Team' Couple Are Behind New Vaccine
Pedestrians walk past Pfizer world headquarters in New York on Monday Nov. 9, 2020.   (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

The exhilarating news that a COVID-19 vaccine was a big success in a large-scale trial is a victory for Pfizer—and for the husband-and-wife team behind BioNTech, the German biotech firm that collaborated with the American drugmaker. CEO Ugur Sahin and his wife, board member Oezlem Tuereci, founded the firm with Austrian oncologist Christoph Huber in 2008. The company's work on using messenger RNA genetic material to fight cancer led to the vaccine success. Matthias Kromayer of venture capital firm MIG, which has funded the company, describes Sahin and Tuereci as a "dream team," reports Reuters. The pair, who are both from Turkish immigrant families in Germany, are so committed to their work that they returned to the lab on the day they got married. The company announced Monday that in Phase 3 clinical trials, the vaccine had been 90% effective in preventing infections without serious side effects. More:

  • Success seen as major breakthrough. The Guardian reports that while experts caution that the results are still preliminary, they consider the vaccine's apparent success "excellent and exciting news." If the vaccine does win approval, as seems likely, it will be the first approved vaccine based on mRNA, which could lead to new and improved vaccines for other diseases.

  • How the vaccine works. The experimental vaccine "trains" the immune system with genetic code taken from the coronavirus, the BBC reports. The vaccine tells cells to produce the coronavirus "spike" protein, which is then attacked by the immune system, prompting it to produce antibodies.
  • The timeline. The AP has a timeline of the vaccine's development, starting March 17, when Pfizer and BioNTech announced they would use the latter company's technology to develop a vaccine. Pfizer says it hopes to release more data on effectiveness and manufacturing later this month and apply for emergency-use authorization soon afterward.
  • Immunity could last a year. Sahin tells Reuters that the company hopes the vaccine will provide immunity to COVID-19 for at least a year, although it's still unclear exactly how long protection will last.
  • A huge challenge awaits. If the Pfizer vaccine and others are approved, the next step will be dealing with the enormous challenge of getting enough people inoculated, the Wall Street Journal reports. Officials will need to deliver millions of doses of vaccine, which need to be kept at ultra-low temperatures—and persuade the public to get vaccinated. Pfizer has already prepared a "staging ground" in Michigan ready to take delivery of millions of doses.
  • Who will get a vaccine first? CDC advisers say that when a vaccine is approved, the first doses should go to doctors, nurses, and support personnel who keep the health care system running. Dr. Jose Romero, head of the committee the develops immunization guidelines, tells NPR that high-risk workers will likely be vaccinated in December and January. He says the committee is working free from interference by administration officials or drug companies. "No shortcuts should be taken for this vaccine, and it should be scrutinized the same way we would advise any other vaccine for prevention of infectious diseases," he says.
  • Operation Warp Speed didn't fund development. Bloomberg notes that while Trump administration are hailing the vaccine as evidence of the success of their "Operation Warp Speed" initiative, the Pfizer vaccine was not among those that received US government funding for development and testing. The German government, however, provided funding to BioNTech.
  • Other vaccine candidates. The Pfizer vaccine is just one of 47 vaccines in clinical trials worldwide. CNBC looks at the progress of another four being developed by US companies. Moderna says it hopes to see results from its Phase 3 trial this month and receive emergency-use authorization in December.
(Read more coronavirus vaccine stories.)

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