‘Highly likely’ vaccine works against UK variant, but could be adapted in six weeks, says BioNTech chief

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(Independent)
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The scientist behind the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine has said he is confident that his candidate will work against the new variant of coronavirus detected in the UK.

Professor Ugur Sahin, chief executive of BioNTech, said further studies were being conducted to assess whether the vaccine induces full protection against the new variant.

Should the jab need to be adapted, the company could do so in about six weeks, Prof Sahin said, though regulators might have to approve the changes before the shots can be rolled out.

He admitted that: “We don't know at the moment if our vaccine is also able to provide protection against this new variant,” but because the proteins that coat the outside of the virus are 99 per cent the same as the prevailing strain, BioNTech has “scientific confidence” in its jab.

“Scientifically, it is highly likely that the immune response by this vaccine also can deal with the new virus variants,” Prof Sahin told a news conference the day after the two-dose candidate was approved for use in the European Union.

The variant, detected mainly in London and the southeast of England in recent weeks, is thought to be up to 70 per cent more transmissible, according to UK scientists.

Although there is no indication the new strain causes more serious illness, numerous countries in Europe and beyond have restricted travel from Britain as a result.

Prof Sahin said it would take “about two weeks” to test his candidate against the variant. “The likelihood that our vaccine works ... is relatively high,” he reiterated.

On Monday, he said the jab had proved effective against other variants of coronavirus that had been identified throughout the pandemic.

“We have already tested the vaccine against around 20 other virus variants with other mutations,” he said. “The immune response generated by our vaccine has always inactivated all forms of the virus.”

BioNTech's vaccine, developed together with Pfizer, is authorised for use in more than 45 countries, including the UK, the US and the EU.

Up to 12.5 million doses of the vaccine, enough to inoculate more than 6 million people, are to be delivered to the EU by the end of the year.

The 27 member states that want shots will receive them within five days, the company’s chief business officer, Sean Marett, said during Tuesday’s briefing.

BioNTech plans to start production for European markets in February at its site in Marburg, Germany, chief financial officer Sierk Poetting said.

It has said previously the facility, which it bought in September, would eventually have an annual production capacity up to 750 million doses.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has meanwhile said it will convene a meeting of members to discuss strategies to counter the new coronavirus strain. It has not given a date for the meeting.

“Limiting travel to contain spread is prudent until we have better info. Supply chains for essential goods & essential travel should remain possible,” WHO regional director Hans Kluge said on Twitter, urging increased preventive measures.

The organisation has cautioned against major alarm over the variant, saying it was a normal part of a pandemic's evolution and praising UK for detecting it.

In a statement on Tuesday, the WHO repeated that there was not yet enough information to determine whether the new variant could affect vaccine efficacy, saying researching was ongoing.

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