Özlem Türeci and Ugur Sahin, founders of German company BioNTech, have been honored several times for developing the first COVID-19 vaccine. They spoke with DW about the future of the virus and vaccines.
DW: What’s going to happen with COVID-19, and when will the pandemic be over?
Özlem Türeci: That is a difficult question, because we learn something new about the virus every day, about how it reacts to the vaccine. We need this knowledge in order to judge when the pandemic will be over. But what we can already say for sure is that gradually a new normalcy is settling in. We can already feel that. We are learning how to deal with the virus. Many of us are already vaccinated, and new degrees of freedom are being gained. There is going to be a normalcy where we can act more freely because large parts of the population are immune.
We’re going to be dealing with virus for a few more years, for sure. There will also be answers to questions that are currently not clarified. The future will show whether other variants appear that are immune to the current vaccines, and whether these have to be tweaked accordingly. Over the years, the virus will acquire the status of the flu virus, for which some groups of the population are vaccinated every year or every two years. The coronavirus is going to become a more manageable virus.
Are you working on a new generation of your vaccine against other virus mutations?
Ugur Sahin: Yes, we’re currently testing variant vaccines in a relatively small group of volunteers. A study on the South African beta variant is almost complete and there is an ongoing one on the delta variant, mainly to collect data. At the moment, there is no need to alter the vaccine. But we want to show that we can produce new variant vaccines and test them clinically to show they are as safe as the one that we are already using.
If a variant turns up in the next few years and the vaccine has to be adapted, we will be able to do this very quickly because we will already have set up the necessary procedure. We will, very calmly, be able to prepare for the fact that the vaccine might have to be adapted to new virus mutations every two years.
Is it necessary to vaccinate children, too?
Sahin: We cannot say whether this is necessary. We generate data and provide this to the authorities in charge. They have already approved vaccinations for children aged 12 to 15(in Germany — Editor’s note).
Türeci: We submitted data for 5- to 11-year-olds three weeks ago and the authorities now have to judge it within the whole context of the population’s health.
Sahin: It’s very important to us that there be availability. Once vaccines are approved, it is then up to individuals to decide whether they want it or not.
Are you disappointed that after so much research there are still people who refuse to get vaccinated?
Sahin: We’re not disappointed at all. What we are doing is providing information in a transparent way. I think it’s good that experts are expressing themselves in the media. This way, every person has the chance to understand the situation. The only thing I would recommend to everyone would be not only to look at one-sided information but to inform themselves as broadly as possible, in order to come to a good decision.
Do you understand when people say this is a new technology, and that we don’t know the potential future consequences?
Sahin: We understand this, but on the other hand people generally tolerate vaccines very, very well and they are one of humanity’s most important achievements. Without vaccines, our society would not have been able to develop to the extent that it has today. And our vaccine might be based on a new technology, but we understand it well because it has already been around for 30 years.
Our vaccine did not just simply appear. It is based on a biomolecule that we have in our body, in every cell. We are not introducing anything alien. We have a very good scientific basis for it because the necessary research has been conducted for over 30 years. That’s why it was possible to develop our vaccine so quickly.
All over the world, governments are trying to persuade more people to get vaccinated. Could they do more?
Türeci: Every government is trying, and they have developed smart and interesting means of promoting the willingness of people to get the vaccine. All governments should be looking at others, in other regions of the world. The Cologne mayor told us that she goes out to certain districts herself when there is a vaccine rollout. That is something other decision-makers could learn from.
Dr. Özlem Türeci and Dr. Ugur Sahin are the founders of the Mainz-based company BioNTech. On October 13, 2021, they were awarded this year’s Empress Theophano Prize by Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou in Thessaloniki, for their work developing the first COVID-19 vaccine.
The interview was conducted by Irene Anastassopoulou, and has been translated from German.