Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine not troubled by variants so far, says CEO

One of the people behind the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine says he has yet to see any evidence that emerging variants of the disease have found a way to defeat it.

Dr. Ugur Sahin, who founded BioNTech with his wife Dr. Özlem Türeci, told CBC News Network’s Power & Politics today that scientists have two main concerns when it comes to variants of the COVID-19 virus. 

“One concern is that some variants just have a higher infectivity and therefore it’s more difficult to control the pandemic,” Sahin told guest host David Common. “The second concern is that variants potentially could escape existing immune responses.”

To address the second concern, BioNTech’s team of researchers run tests on the vaccine’s effectiveness against individual variants.

“So far, the data is really encouraging for all types of variants,” he said. “We do not have any evidence that our vaccine would not work against any of the prevalent variants.”

While Sahin said he is confident his vaccine will deal with existing variants, he said his company is constantly monitoring its effectiveness on new variants “to be on the safe side.”

BioNTech is also researching possible risks the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine might present to pregnant women. 

Sahin said that pregnant women have participated in vaccine trials — “mainly” women in the third trimester.

Limited data on pregnancy impacts

“There is no indication for increased risk of death. But we have to see that this data is still early data,” he said. “And therefore, any decision for taking the vaccine should be aligned with the physician based on an analysis of risk-benefit.”

As concerns about the risk of blood clots associated with the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine have grown, many have asked whether those who have had a single shot of the AstraZeneca-Oxford product can take the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine as their second shot.

Sahin said his company does not have data to suggest mixing vaccines is safe but there is evidence that patients with antibodies resulting from a COVID-19 infection get better protection once they take the Pfizer-BioNTech shot. 

Dr. Ugur Sahin and Dr. Özlem Türeci, the husband-and-wife founders of the coronavirus vaccine developer BioNTech, pose for a photo at an Axel Springer Award ceremony in March. (Associated Press/Bernd von Jutrczenka)

“The decision at the end of the day is a decision of the health institutions,” he said. 

Asked about the impact his vaccine is having on the global pandemic, Sahin said it’s a “fantastic feeling” to know he is helping so many people.

“We see the impact of our vaccine,” he said. “We feel that this is a privilege, that as a scientist, we have accomplished something which is of benefit for mankind and benefit for our people.”

You can watch full episodes of Power & Politics on CBC Gem, the CBC’s streaming service.

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