Co-founder and chief medical officer of BioNTech, the German firm which developed a Covid-19 vaccine with Pfizer, Dr. Ozlem Tureci, told the media recently that the “world should not live in fear of the Covid-19 virus.”
“Covid will become more manageable. It already has started to become manageable, however, we will need to go back to a new normality, because this virus will accompany us for, still, some years.”
Dr. Tureci explained that when it comes to new coronavirus variants, “BioNTech will continuously assess them as they appear, and there will be more. For all these variants which are currently circulating, it seems that boosters alone, bringing the waning immune responses back to high levels, are suitable and do protect.”
“However, we have to continue to screen because there might be variants upcoming for which this is not the case. And for this we have a second pillar, namely that we prepare ourselves to be quick and fast in the case that we need to adapt to a variant … And we are doing those dry runs, not alone, together with regulators, so that they are also prepared for the potential need to switch,” Tureci explained.
Tureci co-founded BioNTech in 2008 with her husband, Chief Executive Ugar Sahin. She explained how more data is needed to guide us through the rest of the pandemic, but she can picture a future where boosters are given out every 12 to 18 months.
BioNTech’s overall focus as a company is to “pioneer individualized immunotherapies for cancer medicine and using mRNA technology,” which is used to stimulate the body’s own immune response.
“So we had, already, the science and the knowledge about immune mechanisms and how they can be used against viruses and could leverage that. And the other pillar of our response was our technology, the mRNA technology, which allows [it] to be used as a vaccine format, which means it allows [it] to communicate with the immune system and teach it how to respond against this new enemy with high precision,” she explained.
“And this technology, because we had used it in clinical trials in cancer patients, was already ripe. We knew how to conduct clinical trials with it, how to treat humans with it, and how to set up a manufacturing process,” she added.
This extensive experience is what led the company to developing the mRNA Covid-19 vaccine within a year of the pandemic. When it comes to future vaccines for other diseases and viruses that impact the immune system, Tureci explained that there has been “high prioritization which was required for this global threat, but there were definitely lessons which could be learned and taken forward with future vaccines.”
“There are a couple of things which, I think, if we transfer them into future drug developments can help us to be quicker. Also, for example, for non-pandemic infections, but also for cancer and autoimmune disease.”
Other vaccines currently circulating throughout the world, such as the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, are also being led by female scientists, which Tureci believes is “very important.” These high-profile examples of gender balance in science create an overall new standard for equality and representation in STEM fields that have been previously dominated by men.
“I actually truly believe that one of the secrets why we have been successful as a team and as a company is that we are a gender-balanced team. Almost half of our workforce is female and also on the top management level, half of our teams are female,” she explained.
“However, what I also realize is that in our teams we don’t recruit women because we want to fulfil any gender quota, it comes naturally … And it simply turns out that half of them are women,” she said.
Eric Mastrota is a Contributing Editor at The National Digest based in New York. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz, he reports on world news, culture, and lifestyle. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.