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BioNTech chief: EU R&D funds helped develop Covid-19 vaccine

Uğur Şahin’s company received funding from several EU R&D programmes

Uğur Şahin, the chief executive of the Germany-headquartered healthcare company BioNTech, has said the development of the technology used in its Covid-19 vaccine was made possible in part by sustained support from EU R&D programmes.

“We benefited from the fifth, sixth and seventh framework programmes and this helped us to mature our technology,” Şahin said at a virtual health conference on 13 January, referring to the EU’s successive multi-year R&D programmes.

Among that funding was a 2018 European Research Council grant to explore the use of mRNA—a transient genetic signalling molecule—to develop cancer treatments tailored to a patient’s specific genetic mutations. BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine, which has been approved for use in the EU, uses an mRNA platform.

Speaking at the event, hosted by the centre-right European People’s Party, Mariya Gabriel, the EU R&D commissioner and an EPP member, said long-term EU R&D funding facilitated the bloc’s response to Covid-19. “[It] was possible to react so quickly because we invested in research and innovation for many years,” she said.

Also speaking at the event, Franz-Werner Haas, chief executive of the Germany-based vaccine company CureVac, which is still testing its Covid-19 vaccine, said the medicinal mRNA-manufacturing capacities being built up globally “will be there for the next pandemic as well”.

Tal Zaks, chief medical officer of the US-based pharmaceutical company Moderna—which also developed an EU-approved Covid-19 vaccine using an mRNA platform—said the technology could “take on other viruses which are still unmet challenges,” naming HIV and the Nipah virus as priorities for the company.

Şahin said BioNTech, which partnered with the US-based  pharmaceutical company Pfizer to develop its Covid-19 vaccine, would continue to work on cancer immunotherapy, the company’s original and primary focus. 

He said Europe should pursue a “free lane approach" to innovation, setting up committees to spot roadblocks “starting from research until the medicine is affordable and accessible to everybody”.