BioNTech Founder Şahin on the Omicron Variant "It Will Make Scientific Sense To Offer Booster after Three Months"
Uğur Şahin is a physician and CEO of the Mainz-based vaccine manufacturer BioNTech. The company, which Şahin founded together with his wife Özlem Türeci, has risen to become one of the most valuable German companies during the coronavirus pandemic.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Şahin, you don't tend to be easily rattled. But did your heart drop a little when you first saw the information about the new Omicron variant?
Şahin: I was worried. It is an unexpected development, and we also first had to come to terms with this uncharted situation. For a few days, it wasn’t even clear what we were dealing with. Whether it is an escape variant that can evade the immune system. Fortunately, it turned out to only be a partial escape variant, which, in principle, can be controlled with vaccinations.
DER SPIEGEL: So, you’re reasonably confident?
Şahin: Yes, we have been regrouping in the past few weeks. There are still a lot of unknowns, but we have a plan to find the answers and then move forward. We have been preparing for new variants since this spring.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 50/2021 (December 11th, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.
DER SPIEGEL: On Wednesday, you published the results of a preliminary study of how well the BioNTech vaccine works against Omicron. It found that people who have received at least three shots of the vaccine should now be well protected. Were you surprised by that?
Şahin: We had developed five or six scenarios. This preliminary result is the best result that was possible in this situation. According to preliminary data, three doses significantly neutralize the virus. Further data will show how strong the protection is and how long it lasts.
DER SPIEGEL: Other studies are less optimistic. Frankfurt-based virologist Sandra Ciesek, for example, found a significantly lower immune response in her analysis than in the BioNTech study. Why is that?
Şahin: The differences are not that big. Our approach and the data sets were slightly different – when the sera were collected after vaccination, for example. We are in close contact with many researchers, including Ms. Ciesek. Over the next few weeks, it will all come together to form a complete picture.
DER SPIEGEL: Is everyone talking about the same thing? In the public discussion, infection and disease get confused quickly.
Şahin: The first thing we do in the lab is look at how antibodies inhibit the uptake of viruses into cells. If they do this particularly well, they will prevent infection and thus disease of any degree. The second component we look at is the memory function of the immune system through T cells. Even in the absence of antibodies, good memory created by vaccination would lead the T cells to successfully fight the virus after infection. In the case of Omicron, we believe the T cells should be largely effective. And there is thus good protection against serious illness. At least temporarily.
DER SPIEGEL: How many months after the second vaccination should the booster be given? For a long time, it was said that it shouldn’t be administered until six months later. That seems a bit late now given that two doses lose their efficacy after a certain amount time, even against Delta.
Şahin: The situation has changed. With respect to Omicron, two doses are not yet a full vaccination offering sufficient protection. If Omicron continues to spread, as it appears it will, it will make scientific sense to offer a booster after just three months. That is already being done in Britain. However, that decision is not ours to make.
DER SPIEGEL: Just so we understand you correctly: From your data, in the current situation, would the vaccine protect best if everyone got a booster shot as early as three months after the second vaccination?
DER SPIEGEL: But then it will probably be likely that everyone who gets a third dose now will need another booster as early as summer. The fourth vaccination would then be the actual booster, if full vaccination is only completed after three doses.
Şahin: Yes, that is correct if Omicron prevails. However, the fourth shot could also be a vaccine adapted to an Omicron variant.
DER SPIEGEL: That also means that much more vaccine will be needed than you had planned for. In late summer, you still held out hope that the third dose of vaccine would protect against Delta for a longer period of time, and that further boosters would be necessary once a year at most. Can you even produce that much?
Şahin: That is precisely why we have been discussing capacities intensively in recent weeks. We initially said: We want to manufacture at least 3 billion doses next year. In the meantime, we have decided that there need to be at least 4 billion doses. Now, we have to consider whether even more can be produced.
DER SPIEGEL: Back in late summer, you repeatedly pointed out that a booster would be needed after six months in the fight against Delta. Despite that, the German campaign didn’t get off the ground for quite some time. To a certain extent, this was because many people, including some politicians, viewed your promotion of boosters at least partly as a corporate attempt to sell more vaccine. What do you say to that?
Şahin: I noticed that too. There was an overwhelming scientific basis, with many studies and the observations from Israel and elsewhere, in favor of boosters. It makes you wonder: What more data do you need? From my point of view, the discussion was no longer rational. We get nowhere when scientific arguments are eroded by having an alleged motivation thrust upon them. That is why we stopped repeating our call for boosters. The facts were on the table and we had said all that could be said.
Uğur Şahin on the debate among German politicians over booster shots
DER SPIEGEL: On this point, the last German government always emphasized that it had been taken by surprise by the size of the fourth wave. Yet all the experts unanimously warned against exactly this development. Did you make your case for giving booster shots quickly directly to the federal government?
Şahin: We presented our data once again to a meeting of (Germany’s) state and federal health ministers. I had the impression that the information we provided had been heard. However, subsequent discussions did not serve to confirm that initial impression. Instead, someone has an opinion and another person comments on that opinion. Things are no longer being soberly discussed to the end. I would very much like to get back to a rational discussion.
DER SPIEGEL: What do you expect from newly appointment German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach, who is a doctor and health expert?
Şahin: I think this could be a good development. It is important to have a team of advisers that facilitates the development of a medium- and long-term strategy. One-off actions like the ones we have seen recently are no good. We have to build a chain with strong links that won’t break at the weakest point.
DER SPIEGEL: What’s the next step? You are developing a customized Omicron vaccine, but it is an open question whether it will go into production.
Şahin: Whether we even turn the key to full production has not yet been decided. At the moment, several Omicron variants are circulating, and it is not yet clear which one will prevail and which one should be target by the vaccine. This is not new and that was also the case with Delta at the beginning, incidentally.
DER SPIEGEL: Could it also be that we don’t need a new vaccine at all and that boosters with the current vaccine will do the job?
Şahin: We will have to wait and see whether Omicron prevails and what the clinical picture is then. It will take a few more weeks to answer all these questions.
DER SPIEGEL: Is it also possible that the next variant will already be here before you even start production?
Şahin: I've been thinking hard over the past few days about why we're actually seeing a variant like Omicron right now, what caused it. In doing so, I remembered being concerned about one thing earlier this year: In people with suppressed immune systems, the virus might get too much time to accumulate mutations and evolve. It appears to me that this is exactly what happened with Omicron: The virus has been able to undergo a prolonged evolution in a small group of people.
DER SPIEGEL: Was that an unfortunate coincidence, or are such strongly mutated variants a constant threat?
Şahin: It certainly could happen more often. Basically, it’s like this: Once Omicron spreads, the virus variant that comes after it will have to come up with something new to make the leap into the next generation. We would then be constantly facing a new pathogen.
DER SPIEGEL: If necessary, could you produce several vaccines simultaneously against different variants?
Şahin: That's no problem. Technically, we would be able to do it if it were necessary. I am confident that we will find a viable solution that will help us get a better handle on the pandemic.