The German Biotech Behind Pfizer’s COVID-19 Vaccine Candidate


German biotech BioNTech has been thrust into the global spotlight thanks to its collaboration with global giant Pfizer on a COVID-19 vaccine. The company, founded by Professor Ugur Sahin in 2008 with the goal of creating a wide portfolio of individualised treatments for cancer patients, is one of the leading lights in mRNA technology, which is being used in its COVID-19 vaccine candidate.


Hopes are high for the potential of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and both companies are pushing hard for emergency approval by the end of 2020. Contracts have been signed to supply 30 million doses of the vaccine to the UK, 100 million to the USA, and 120 million to Japan if it is proven safe in testing. The candidate is now undergoing its first regulatory review in North America and has been accepted for a rolling review by Canada’s regulatory authority, Health Canada,


However, the mRNA technology being utilised in the vaccine, while promising, has never before made it to market. Speaking in May, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla explained why his firm has chosen to go down the mRNA route and why he is so optimistic that such a tack can prove fruitful.


“There are multiple technologies being implemented right now, from very old ones all the way to very novel ones,” noted Bourla. “I hope that they will all be successful because as we all know, we will need a lot of options as soon as possible. The reason why we’ve chosen the mRNA technology, although we have never used it before, it’s the first time that it is used for a vaccine, was because the technology was so far [advanced]. For the past two years we have been collaborating with BioNTech, a German biotech company that is mastering this technology, on a vaccine for flu that has very similar characteristics to COVID-19.”


BioNTech’s appearance on global front pages as part of this effort is not, however, the result of an overnight success story. The biotech’s co-founder and CEO, Professor Ugur Sahin, is a serial entrepreneur, having previously founded Ganymed Pharmaceuticals, another targeted immunotherapy outfit that was acquired by Astellas for around USD 1.4 billion in 2016.


BioNTech, founded in 2008 with the aim of providing a wider suite of immunotherapy treatments than its predecessor Ganymed, has gone from strength to strength ever since. From initial seed capital of around USD 165 million, the company secured Series A financing of USD 270 million in 2018, and USD 325 million in Series B financing in 2019, one of the largest single private funding rounds that a European biotech company had ever seen.


With a NASDAQ IPO in October 2019 bringing in an additional USD 150 million, BioNTech’s value soared to over USD 3.4 billion, making it the third-largest biotech to list in the past decade, behind only Moderna and Genmab.


In 2010, the company created its own biopharmaceutical research institute – the Center for Translational Oncology (TRON) at the University Medical Center of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz – with the aim of better connecting research in the public and private sectors. Sahin, and BioNTech, are therefore well embedded in the push for innovative new immunotherapy treatments and – should their COVID-19 vaccine candidate be approved – stand to truly become household names.

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