Around the world, scientists pivoted early last year to fight a then-unknown virus. Now those behind the first widely used COVID-19 vaccine say the shots are safe and mostly effective. What’s more, their virus-busting technology could soon fight another global plague: cancer.
Ozlem Tureci co-founded the German company BioNTech with her husband. The couple was vigorously working to harness the body’s God-designed immune system to tackle tumors. But one Saturday over breakfast, they decided to switch gears and begin battling a new virus infecting people in China.
“We . . . decided we would go for it,” says Tureci. “On Monday, we started working on it.” They dubbed their venture “Project Lightspeed.”
Less than 11 months later, British officials authorized a BioNTech vaccine developed with U.S. drug company Pfizer. A week later, the United States approved the vaccine too. Since December, tens of millions of people worldwide have received the shot.
“It pays off to make bold decisions,” Tureci says.
Hard work helps too. Tureci’s husband is BioNTech chief executive Ugur Sahin. He says researchers were able to progress “so quickly and successfully” on the vaccine “because we had already made so much progress during our work on it in the previous 10 years.”
Tureci insists corners were not cut by those racing to develop a vaccine. “There is a very rigid process in place, and the process does not stop after a vaccine has been approved,” she says. As if to emphasize the medicine’s safety, all BioNTech workers receive vaccinations with their own product.
The COVID-19 vaccines made by BioNTech-Pfizer and rival Moderna use messenger RNA, or mRNA, to carry instructions into the human body. The mRNA tells the body how to make proteins for attacking a specific virus. A central feature of mRNA is that a person doesn’t require exposure to the actual virus in order to develop a way to attack it.
Tureci believes same principle can move the immune system to fight tumors, part of BioNTech’s original goal. “We have several different cancer vaccines based on mRNA,” she says. “Within only a couple of years, we will also have our vaccines [against] cancer at a place where we can offer them to people.”
This spring, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier awarded the couple Germany’s Order of Merit. “You began with a drug to treat cancer in a single individual,” he says. “And today we have a vaccine for all of humanity.”