Biontech doesn’t offer the best vaccine because it’s too expensive and cumbersome. But in the end, cancer patients will benefit from it.
Corona is not just an infection, it has long been a case for investors and stock markets. Biontech’s donors have already commented: The twins Thomas and Andreas Strüngmann do not want to sell their shares under any circumstances. The two investors hold around 50 percent of the company, which they want to develop into a “fully integrated pharmaceutical company”. Not only will vaccines be produced in the future, but also agents against cancer or against autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis. The pharmaceutical industry is facing a revolution.
It shouldn’t sound cynical, but the corona pandemic is a gigantic opportunity for the biotech industry. How powerful the new mRNA process is can now be tested on a large scale: people are injected with instructions for making proteins, which are then produced by their own body cells in order to activate or recode the immune system. This works with viruses, but also with cancer cells.
Without Corona, clinical studies would have been carried out for years with limited resources and a clear number of test subjects. Corona accelerates this research, so to speak, to “the speed of light”, as Biontech founders Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci have called their vaccination project. Biontech is likely to vaccinate around a billion people twice this year, so that afterwards a huge data set will be available on how the mRNA process actually works.
Thanks to Corona, mRNA technology is now experiencing a “massive breakthrough that might otherwise have been delayed for a few years”, says molecular biologist Emanuel Wyler from the Max Delbrück Center. This is good news for cancer patients or people with multiple sclerosis.
However, there is also a paradox: In the long term, it is by no means certain that the Biontech vaccine is the most efficient way to counter corona. Biontech is now at the start because mRNA technology was simply the fastest. It only took about a weekend to program the building instructions for the messenger substances – and Biontech could get into production and begin the clinical studies.
Corona is a gigantic opportunity for the biotech industry. It is now possible to test how powerful the new mRNA method is
The Biontech vaccine works 95 percent when injected twice. That is terrific. Nevertheless, the vaccine also has two disadvantages that are widely discussed: It costs up to 17 euros per dose and is therefore very expensive. In addition, the vaccine must be cooled to minus 70 degrees. Biontech has announced that a new variant will be developed by the summer that gets by with less cold.
Nevertheless, it is clear: Biontech is completely unsuitable for the global south, if only because the cold chains are usually missing. In the medium term, the world needs a different vaccine – and it will come. Around 170 research groups are currently pursuing at least seven different approaches on how to immunize against corona.
This includes the traditional technique of obtaining vaccines using dead viral material. AstraZeneca uses modified cold viruses from chimpanzees – which costs two euros per dose and can be stored in a normal refrigerator. India is therefore relying on this method, although it probably still needs to be optimized. So far, AstraZeneca does not seem quite as reliable as the product from Biontech.
In any case, retrospect could show that Biontech was an expensive detour to fight Corona. Still, it is right to order as much of this vaccine as possible now. Every human life is precious, and at the moment Biontech is what is most available. In addition, these billions fuel research from which many cancer patients or people with autoimmune diseases will still benefit. This is exactly what investors like the Strüngmann brothers are betting on.