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BioNTech CEO Says 'Highly Likely' Vaccine Is Effective Against U.K. Virus Variant

A droplet falls from a syringe after a health care worker was injected with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Women & Infants Hospital in Providence, R.I.
David Goldman
A droplet falls from a syringe after a health care worker was injected with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Women & Infants Hospital in Providence, R.I.

The head of the German pharmaceutical company BioNTech expressed confidence that his company's vaccine would be effective against a coronavirus variant rapidly infecting people across London and southern England.

U.K. officials have warned the new variant is likely to bemore contagious than the various strains already circulating, though there is no evidence suggesting it is more deadly.

BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin underscored that experiments would have to be conducted to reach a definitive conclusion about their vaccine, which it developed with Pfizer. And data from those tests will not be available for a few weeks.

"We don't know at the moment if our vaccine is also able to provide protection against this new variant." Sahin said during a Tuesday press briefing. "But scientifically, it is highly likely that the immune response by this vaccine also can deal with the new virus variant."

He said that 99% of the proteins that make up the virus variant remain the same as the original. Sahin added that he has "scientific confidence that the vaccine might protect" against the variant.

It will take about two weeks to get the data about whether the vaccine is effective against the variant, which he said would be published.

Sahin was pressed on how quickly the company could ramp up production of a new vaccine, should a significant mutation of the coronavirus emerge.

"We can directly start to engineer a vaccine which completely mimics this new mutation and we could be able to provide a new vaccine, technically within six weeks," Sahin added.

But he added that an important factor to consider is how quickly various regulators, like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and European Medicines Agency, would authorize the use of a hypothetical new vaccine.

It is important to note, as NPR's global health correspondent Michaeleen Doucleff reported on Tuesday, that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 "has been mutating the whole time" during the pandemic, averaging one to two mutations a month.

What makes the U.K. variant so noteworthy is that it has 17 mutations, she reported.

"And many of those mutations are in what's called the spike protein. This is part of the virus that reaches out and binds to human cells, which then leads to infection," Doucleff said.

Scientists discovered one of the mutations in the U.K. variant enables the virus to bind more tightly to human cells, Doucleff added. Overall, she said scientists think these changes are "helping it to adapt to humans" and possibly spread more easily.

In response to the variant, nations in Europe and across the globe have barred travelers from the U.K.

More than 40 countries have imposed travel restrictions, the BBC reported, causing delays at ports and long lines at tunnels leading out of the U.K.

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Brakkton Booker is a National Desk reporter based in Washington, DC.