The Covid pandemic has shown the importance of having extensive and constant investments in science, as well as strengthening epidemiological surveillance and communication systems for diseases transmitted by animals (so-called zoonoses).
It was also due to her that scientists, doctors and researchers gained evidence in society, becoming public figures who helped to understand how the virus evolves and how vaccines can protect us from the pathogen.
One of these examples is the couple of scientists who own the German company BioNTech, which became known worldwide for its partnership with the pharmaceutical Pfizer in the development of the vaccine against Covid.
The story of this discovery is told in the book “The Vaccine” by Joe Miller, a reporter for the Financial Times. Miller followed for ten months the daily lives of the couple Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, founders of BioNTech and researchers behind the innovative technology of messenger RNA (mRNA) used in the immunizer.
Both of Turkish origin and living in Germany, they had the goal of life to find a way to cure cancer, which is why they have been researching for the last 30 years ways to use mRNA as a treatment to fight tumor cells.
Despite the advances, the difficulty in being able to recruit volunteers for clinical trials – since it was necessary for the patients to be terminal and not being treated for the disease – and the scarce funding held back this discovery in recent decades, and the technology was seen by traditional drugmakers as “unlikely to succeed”.
That was until 2020, when they managed to create, initiate and advance clinical studies that proved the safety and efficacy of the immunizer for a highly infectious disease that has so far resulted in more than 6 million victims worldwide.
This story is told in detail, with testimonies from dozens of people, from BioNTech employees to German and European health authorities, who were directly involved in the conditional use approval process of the vaccine — whose official name is BNT162b2.
At first, the vaccine’s own success story was anyone’s guess. Asked about this, Miller said he thought he would report on the steps and obstacles encountered in developing a vaccine and why it would have failed. “As a journalist in Frankfurt, it was my duty to follow German companies investigating a Covid vaccine, but this was one of hundreds being studied. As of early 2020, I think there was still little reason to believe it would be so successful.” , said the journalist in a video interview with Sheetin March.
However, the story fortunately had a different ending. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was the first to have the results of a phase 3 clinical trial released worldwide. On November 9, 2020, the companies issued a press release (and their investors) to announce the preliminary results of the study, whose effectiveness was “greater than 90%”, which made Pfizer’s shares on the stock exchange of values rose by more than 1.2%. Nine days later, the results of the study would confirm an efficacy of 95% and, on December 8 of the same year, the immunizer would be injected for the first time in a healthy person, resulting in the production of a drug in record time in the entire history of vaccination.
The great expectation about the vaccine that would fight the “invisible enemy” and help to save lives was also wrapped in a contained optimism of the founders who, despite not knowing if it would work or not, “needed to try anyway” to do something to get everyone out of the pandemic. “It is true that they are two normal people, but at the same time, they are extraordinary people, and we will hardly have a situation like the one experienced during the pandemic”, describes Miller.
With each barrier overcome —tests in animal models showed that the vaccine was safe and did not cause side effects in rodents until the first results in humans — the certainty that the combination of years of study perfecting a new technology combined with unshakable scientific rigor — characteristic perhaps more of Sahin than of Tureci—would bring good results only increased. “When people ask how we got a vaccine in less than a year, the real answer is that it didn’t take that long, it took 30 years to make, and the book explains that through their eyes,” he says.
But the vaccine race also had a bitter aftertaste. As in Brazil and the United States, in Germany many were against the idea of a vaccine that, according to the fake news in circulation, could “alter human DNA”. The result is that both BioNTech employees and health authorities received threats and hateful messages, similar to what happened here with Anvisa technicians.
In fact, the book gives the impression that Sahin and Tureci are two scientists swimming against the current, that is, the difficulties in convincing investors in 2020 to inject tens of millions of dollars into their company, the result of which —now we already know— was to be the fastest growing company in all of Germany during the pandemic.
Described as ordinary people and extremely detailed, the two are, in fact, the purest form of a scientist imaginable: they worked on trial and error and the analysis of evidence to refute or not hypotheses. The “bureaucratic” part, which included going after research funds, interested them less than basic research.
What we have in the end is a book of scientific dissemination aimed at an audience that already consumes science or has a huge interest in related areas, hardly reaching an audience that is oblivious to pharmaceutical or biomedical research.
Still, reliving in detail the story of a candidate in the Covid vaccine race and, today, seeing how we are still looking for constant reinforcements and means to fight the new variants of the virus, reminds us how science is not made of promises and words. empty, but with the meticulous search for hits and misses in the laboratory and presentation of their findings to external evaluators.