BioNTech Founder Şahin on the Omicron Variant“It Will Make Scientific Sense To Offer Booster after Three Months”
The latest mutations of the coronavirus call for a new vaccination strategy. In an interview, BioNTech founder Uğur Şahin explains why countries need to administer booster shots faster and argues that a fourth jab will likely also be necessary.Interview Conducted by Thomas Schulz10.12.2021, 16.04 Uh
About Uğur Şahin
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?
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.DER SPIEGEL 50/2021
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 50/2021 (December 11th, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.SPIEGEL International
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.ANZEIGE
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.
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?