Pfizer initially rejected Covid vaccine as it didn’t think virus would amount to much

·9-min read
Dr Ugur Sahin and his wife, Dr Özlem Türeci, the founders of BioNTech, staked the future of their company on their belief that a pandemic was coming
Dr Ugur Sahin and his wife, Dr Özlem Türeci, the founders of BioNTech, staked the future of their company on their belief that a pandemic was coming

Pfizer initially turned down the offer of developing a coronavirus vaccine because its executives thought the virus would be rapidly contained.

Dr Ugur Sahin and his wife, Dr Özlem Türeci, the founders of BioNTech, were told "guys, this is not going to work” by the pharmaceutical giant as the virus was starting to sweep the globe in January 2020.

The mRNA technology, which has proved so crucial to the vaccine breakthroughs, was, at the time, also considered too experimental by Dr Phil Dormitzer, Pfizer’s vice-president and chief scientific officer for viral vaccines.

“My working assumption was that it [Covid-19] would be controlled” like the Sars and Mers outbreaks, Dr Dormitzer admits.

The initial rejection, revealed in a new book, came just days after the Turkish-born couple decided to dedicate BionNTech to creating an mRNA based Covid jab, effectively gambling the business on something that had never been done before. Their company is now worth US$85 billion.

Yet Drs Sahin and Türeci remain close to Pfizer and Dr Dormitzer, or “Phil” as they know him.

Dr Sahin had a detailed image in his mind of how the pandemic would unfold but also thought the Pfizer man’s assessment “completely rational”.

“After the phone call with Phil, I just thought for a second and said ‘we will call him again in a few weeks,’” Dr Sahin told The Telegraph.

The couple thought it only a “matter of time” before the drugs giant changed its mind – and they were right. A deal was announced between the two companies a month later.

Next week, the Government is expected to announce a "booster" campaign for higher risk groups, which the Pfizer jab is expected to be at the forefront of.

Boris Johnson will also announce the repeal of a series of measures from the Coronavirus Act which are now deemed unnecessary. These include powers to close-down sectors of the economy, such as business premises, or apply restrictions to events and gatherings.

Husband and wife scientists’ vaccine gamble was a shot in the arm for millions

BioNTech may have created the world’s leading coronavirus vaccine but most of its staff are still working remotely, whether double or triple jabbed – and that includes its founders.

“I’m here most of the time but the company is about 250 metres from here, so sometimes I'm just watching to see if everyone is working”, says Dr Ugur Şahin over a Zoom link from a temporary location.

“It’s to avoid too much contact”, interjects his wife and business partner, Dr Özlem Türeci, perhaps sensing Dr Sahin’s joke with British journalists may go horribly wrong. “To let the people on the campus do their work in the labs and the manufacturing”.

Dr Ugur Sahin says he knew what he had to do when he visualised the scale of the looming Covid crisis
Dr Ugur Sahin says he knew what he had to do when he visualised the scale of the looming Covid crisis

This dynamic - Dr Sahin enthusing, Dr Türeci copper-bottoming - may help explain how an obscure biotech firm from an unfashionable part of Germany ended up vaccinating so much of the world.

So far, roughly 1.4 billion doses of their revolutionary jab - each containing billions of nanoparticles of synthetic RNA code - have been shipped to more than 120 countries. Only the Chinese vaccine manufacturers have distributed more.

Their story is recounted in a new book, The Vaccine, written by journalist Joe Miller with the couples’ cooperation, to be released this week.

It tells how the couple, who emigrated to Germany from Turkey as small children and met on a cancer ward as young doctors, built not one billion-dollar biotech company but two. And how they gambled everything to pivot BioNTech to focus exclusively on a Covid vaccine in early 2020.

It’s proved a phenomenal success but when Dr Sahin initially called Pfizer to see if it wanted to be involved, the answer was a firm “no”.

“Guys, this is not going to work”, he was told by Dr Phil Dormitzer, Pfizer’s vice-president and chief scientific officer for vaccines.

Mr Dormitzer had been involved with discussions about whether to create vaccines for Mers and Sars, only to see the pathogens quickly contained, and thought the same would be true of Sars-Cov-2.

“My working assumption was that it would be controlled”, he later confirmed to Miller.

None of this is recounted by the scientists with any hint of ego or malice. Dr Sahin is 56 but he exudes the energy of a 18 year old and does not seem to have a corporate bone in his body.

He talks to us in a scruffy T-shirt with a hippy-ish thong around his neck. Dr Türeci is slightly more formal and has a doctor’s air of benevolent patience.

“After the phone call with Phil, I just thought for a second and said ‘we will call him again in a few weeks,’” Dr Sahin recalls.

It was the publication of a single article by Chinese academics in the Lancet on January 24 2020 that convinced the couple that a pandemic was coming and that they should act, no matter what the corporate risk.

The article provided the first strong evidence of human-to-human transmission but, for Dr Sahin, there was something more: a seven-year-old girl mentioned in the study had tested positive for the virus without first displaying symptoms.

From this fact, he says, a picture or “pattern” of events formed in his mind that convinced him to act. He said he could “really see” planes flying from Wuhan to cities across the world, their asymptomatic passengers unaware they were carrying the virus. He could visualise the scale of the crisis to come.

“I calculated that [the virus] was already metastasizing like a cancer”, he said. “And in the early stage you don't see the cancer … [only later] you see what is happening”.

Like Moderna in the US, BioNTech is a company that specialises in mRNA - fragments of genetic code that can be synthesized in a lab and then injected into the human bloodstream to tell the immune system what to do.

Famously, these slithers of code can be created within days in the right lab, sometimes giving the impression that the process is simple or without risk.

For example, you may have heard in those Downing Street press conferences how we should not worry about new variants evading vaccines because if that did happen, companies like BioNtech will just knock out a new version.

Treatments for cancer, not to mention the world's biggest infectious killers – TB, HIV and malaria – could all follow.

BioNTech, now capitalised at US$84 billion, has teams of scientists working on all these projects and more but its husband and wife founders - while optimistic for the future - warn there is no easy path ahead.

Every new disease or pathogen is different, they point out. For cancers, the tumour type is specific to the individual patient, for instance.

“It's very important to understand that it does not work that you have a technology and now you look for a way to use it”, says Dr Türeci.

She compares designing an mRNA message for the immune system with providing a sheriff with a “wanted poster”. The real challenge is not creating the poster or even delivering it but getting a precise understanding of exactly what the suspect looks like to begin with.

If the poster ends up with even a single hair out of place, the immune system may not recognise its target, or worse, attack and destroy the wrong one.

“It’s about innovation”, she says. Understanding the “mechanisms” of the cancers and pathogens to be targeted. Only then can we “define what to put into that wanted poster”.

Personalised vaccines for a range of diseases are on the way, says Dr Özlem Türeci
Personalised vaccines for a range of diseases are on the way, says Dr Özlem Türeci

The couple also make a distinction between their science and government policy. Issues such as booster jabs and whether or not children should be vaccinated against Covid depend on the strategies being used to fight the virus locally, they say.

Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), said last week he believes that a third shot of vaccine should be seen not as a booster but part of the standard regimen for Covid-19 jabs.

Hower Dr Türeci notes: “Every pathogen needs some sort of boosting against at some point, so it's really semantics”.

She adds that if the aim is to reduce infections then boosters might be used earlier. If on the other hand it is to reduce severe disease and hospitalisations, “then booster shots could be done much later”, she said.

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has been unfavourably compared to the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab by some because it is charged for, rather than being produced at cost. Indeed, in the new book it is revealed that unnamed Brussels lobbyists called for the EU to drop the vaccine, arguing it would simply lead to a transfer of wealth to the US.

Others have countered that the speed, scale and smoothness with which the Pfizer/BioNTech jab has been rolled out may be a testament to the power of the profit motive.

Dr Sahin says he does not believe there is evidence for that but says that a “profit-orientated model” may ultimately deliver more, assuming it is “fair” to start with.

“We now can invest what we earn from the vaccine to further accelerate our development, for example, into malaria vaccine”, he says. “We do it because we are purpose-driven, and we really see that malaria is one of the worst infectious diseases affecting so many small kids”.

He adds that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is priced at “cost of goods” for low income countries, which will receive up to two billion doses by the end of next year. The technology is also being licenced in the developing world so that it can be manufactured locally.

Asked about the future of mRNA vaccines for conditions such as cancer, the couple are optimistic. Revolutions happening in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics mean personalised vaccines for a range of tumours could begin to become available within years.

“We believe it can happen within the next five years”, says Dr Sahin with the same confidence and vision one imagined he had for a Covid vaccine in January 2020.

Dr Türeci nods in considered agreement. “It’s very exciting”, she says.

  • 'Vaccine: How The Breakthrough of a Generation Fought Covid-19' by Joe Miller is available exclusively on Audible from 14th September.

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