Vaccine manufacturer BioNtech, along with their partner – Pfizer, is trying to boost the production of their Covid-19 vaccine according to its founders. They have also warned that there would be gaps in the current supply of the vaccine until other vaccines are fully approved.
BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine is the first to receive emergency approval from WHO however the vaccine has been slow to arrive in the European Union. The relatively late approval from the health regulator of the EU and the small size of the order placed by Brussels have been said to cause this delay.
In July 2020, the USA had already ordered 600 million doses of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine, but, only in November, the EU placed its order of 300 million doses.
Ugur Sahin, the co-founder of the German biotech company – BioNTech, said, “We are lacking other approved vaccines and we have to fill this gap with our vaccine.
“We are trying to find new cooperation partners to produce for us. But it’s not as if there were specialised unused factories lying around across the world that could produce vaccines of the required quality from one day to the next.
“You can’t just switch over, from producing vaccines instead of aspirin or cough syrup. The process requires years of expertise and the appropriate structural and technological equipment.”
The delays in rolling out the vaccine have caused consternation in BioNTech’s home country – Germany. Some regions in the country had to pause the inoculations within days of launching an inoculation drive on December 27.
Sahin said, “At the moment it doesn’t look good – a hole is appearing because there is a lack of other approved vaccines and we have to fill the gap with our own vaccine.”
Oezlem Tuereci, co-founder and chief medical officer of BioNTech, also faulted the EU’s decision to spread orders in the expectation that more vaccines would be approved quickly.
“At some point it became clear that it would not be possible to deliver so quickly,” Tuereci, also the wife to Sahin, said. “By then it was already too late to place follow-on orders.”
A new production line
BioNTech hopes to launch a new production line in Marburg, Germany, before schedule in February 2021, said Sahin. With this new production line, the German biotech start-up will have the capacity to produce 250 million doses in the first half of 2021.
He added that talks are also underway with contract manufacturers on boosting production and there should be greater clarity by the end of January.
Jens Spahn, German Health Minister, wrote on Twitter that German authorities would do everything possible to enable a swift start in Marburg.
Another Covid-19 vaccine from Moderna is expected to be approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) on January 6.
The health minister has also asked the EMA to quickly approve the Oxford University- AstraZeneca shot cleared by Britain.
Effect on new coronavirus variant
Regarding the effectiveness of the vaccine against the new Covid-19 variant, Sahin, BioNTech’s CEO, said that their mRNA vaccine should be able to cope with a variant first detected in Britain that appears to be more contagious.
He said, “We are testing whether our vaccine can also neutralise this variant, and will soon know more.”
Questioned about coping with a strong mutation, he replied that it would be possible to tweak the vaccine as required within six weeks – though such new treatments might require additional regulatory approvals.
He also revealed that their company would make its vaccine easier to handle and a next-generation vaccine could be ready by late summer.