Cure for cancer the next target for Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine inventor Ugur Sahin

Cure for cancer the next target for Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine inventor Ugur Sahin
Ugur Sahin, the co-founder and CEO of BioNTech, with Arab News's Frank Kane on Frankly Speaking. (AN photo)
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Updated 08 March 2021

Cure for cancer the next target for Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine inventor Ugur Sahin

Cure for cancer the next target for Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine inventor Ugur Sahin
  • Turkish-German scientist and entrepreneur envisions use of techniques developed for COVID-19 fight in successful cancer treatment
  • Sahin says a new vaccine version would be more easily transportable and more effective against new COVID-19 variants

DUBAI: The man who invented the first vaccine against the deadly coronavirus is prioritizing a cure for cancer as his post-pandemic target.

Ugur Sahin, the co-founder and chief executive of BioNTech, the firm which developed the earliest authorized vaccine in partnership with Pfizer, told Arab News that successful cancer treatment, using similar techniques he developed in the fight against COVID-19, was his next goal.

Sahin, who developed the vaccine along with his wife Ozlem Tureci, who is BioNTech’s chief medical officer, was appearing in the latest episode of Frankly Speaking, the series of video interviews with leading global policy-makers and business people.

“Definitely. The success now with our COVID-19 vaccine is of course transformative for the company, and we see that as a great opportunity,” he said

 

Sahin also spoke of the “next generation” of COVID vaccine his company is developing, the need for a fairer system of global distribution of the existing vaccine, and the possibility that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine could be manufactured in the Middle East.

BioNTech began life as a company focused on using revolutionary mRNA technology to develop new medical weapons in the fight against cancer, and Sahin said that was his next goal once the pandemic had been defeated. The success of the COVID-19 vaccine has proved a vindication of his methods, and given BioNTech the financial resources to pursue the cancer treatment.

“We see that as a great opportunity, and also an obligation to think in an even bigger fashion about our vision, and how we could accelerate our cancer program and make it more available,” he said.

Sahin, who is the son of Turkish immigrants to Germany, where BioNTech is based, revealed that a new version of the COVID-19 vaccine could be ready soon, one that is more easily transportable and which could deal more effectively with the more deadly variants of the disease that are appearing in different parts of the world.

“We started to manufacture our vaccine and it came at the beginning with a challenge. We have a vaccine which has to be kept at minus 70 degrees. It’s not yet suitable for supply to all regions on the planet,” he said.

“But we are working on better conditions. We have, most recently, published that we can also start at minus 20 and we will continue to work on that and our aim is really to make our vaccine available — 2 billion doses and maybe even more in 2021 — including not only developed countries but also developing countries.” 

 

The “next generation” of the vaccine could be stored and transported at temperatures as high as minus 2 to minus 8 degrees, he said.

Sahin said that the existing vaccine was also expected to be effective against the South African variant of the virus, which is more transmissible and leads to higher fatality rates, but he added that there was still more testing to be done and data analyzed on the new variants.

Distributing the vaccine more fairly is a challenge, he admitted. “Fairness is always a question of logistics and also accessibility. Our goal when we started to develop this vaccine — and this is in the center of our hearts — is to make our vaccine available worldwide to everyone who needs it,” he said.

He also believes that a more innovative and entrepreneurial approach is needed to solve the problems of distribution of the vaccine to poorer parts of the world.

“We should really ask the question: How can we work together to make that possible?” Sahin said. “That's for some of the future goals, to really understand what are the limitations. For example, for the vaccine supply now, I really want to understand what is the limitation to make our vaccine available to people everywhere,” he said.

One of the key questions in the minds of economic and medical policymakers is when the increasing level of vaccination will begin to bring economic life back to normal after the damaging lockdowns of the past year. “it indeed depends on the rollout. We have this magic number of about 60 to 70 percent of people being vaccinated to start to see a herd immunity, but we are already starting to see the first effects of the vaccinations, with countries starting to vaccinate elderly people.

 

“So the first effect is that the hospitalizations are dropping in the vaccinated people and that's the first very important aspect — to get the reduction of hospitalization and mortality, and later on get also a better control of infections,” Sahin said.

On the problem of persuading people reluctant to have the vaccine, he said: “We have to continue to communicate the benefits we are seeing. This could help convince people.”

BioNTech partnered with US pharmaceuticals group Pfizer when the potential of its vaccine was in the early stages, optimizing the Americans’ global network for clinical trials, supply and regulatory know-how.

“So, we combined our skills and we are working together, driven by science. At the end of the day, we all want to accomplish the same: We want to develop the vaccine as soon as possible, we want to produce as much as possible, and of course we want to have a safe and effective vaccine,” he said.

Outside the US, the vaccine is manufactured at BioNTech facilities in Europe and transported internationally. A new facility in the German town of Marburg is being prepared to manufacture the vaccine in greater numbers, but Sahin explained the long and complex work required in setting up facilities overseas.

 

“It will take us about eight months until we will get out the first vaccines from Marburg. So, this is really the minimal time that would be required. It does not help in the early phase of the pandemic to set up new factories somewhere else. Every factory that we are now starting to consider will help us only in mid-2022,” he said.

The vaccine has been authorized and delivered early in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East, and two countries in the region — Israel and the UAE — top the world tables for the highest proportion of their populations already vaccinated.

Sahin said that the region could be the location of future manufacturing facilities, for the COVID-19 vaccine or for other, potentially more devastating viruses.

“What this pandemic taught us is very clear. It was somehow expected by experts, since more than 20 years, that this could happen. It happened and we were not well prepared, the world was not well prepared. This is a bad pandemic, but it's not the worst possible pandemic,” he said.

 

Sahin declined to comment on the qualities of rival vaccines available. “This is not a race. If it is a race, it’s against the virus, and I'm really happy about that,” he said.

“I had predicted that we will need multiple vaccine developers to participate and to ensure that everyone on the planet is able to get a vaccine, and this is happening.

“It is wonderful to see that all kinds of international collaborations have come up not only with one vaccine, but there are multiple vaccines.”

Sahin and Ozlem, who were named “People of the Year 2020” for their breakthrough in developing the first authorized vaccine, also joined the ranks of the world’s billionaires as the value of the company soared on news of the vaccine.

The founders of BioNTech have strong views on the value of philanthropy in the fight against life-threatening diseases, as rich and successful entrepreneurs increasingly donate a large proportion of their wealth to medical research.

“It is extremely important. We have to understand everyone can do something, and the way we would like to position our company is to become a useful company with a philanthropic vision. At the end of the day the question is: How can we ensure that the things we do are done for the benefit of humanity,” Sahin said.

“I don't see a clear reason why, for example, people living in Africa should not benefit from modern cancer treatments.”

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Twitter: @frankkanedubai


Egypt to prioritize vaccination of tourism workers

Egypt to prioritize vaccination of tourism workers
Updated 5 min ago

Egypt to prioritize vaccination of tourism workers

Egypt to prioritize vaccination of tourism workers
  • About 65 percent of tourists in Egypt head to those coastal destinations

DUBAI: Egypt is prioritizing the vaccination of tourism workers to support the sector’s recovery and is on track to announce full inoculation of two resort areas this month, its tourism minister said.
While Egypt’s tourism industry is still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, the sector has picked up in recent months, with more visitors heading to resorts along the Red Sea and Mediterranean coasts.
“We will prioritize workers in the tourism industry, which is an essential sector for Egypt’s economy,” Tourism and Antiquities Minister Khaled Al-Enani told AFP.
“In May, I will announce, along with the minister of health, the complete vaccination of Egyptian workers in hotels, resorts, businesses and restaurants in South Sinai and the Red Sea,” he said on the sidelines of a travel industry conference in Dubai.
About 65 percent of tourists in Egypt head to those coastal destinations, he said.
Enani said other tourist spots will follow, such as Luxor, Aswan and the capital Cairo, home of the Giza pyramids and major museums.
Egypt, which has a population of approximately 100 million, has administered some one million doses, according to authorities.
About two million people work in the tourism industry or organizations linked to it.
Along with its pyramids and pharaonic temples, Egypt is also known for its seaside resorts.
After experiencing “significant and continuous loss” since the coronavirus outbreak, the sector has picked up, said Enani.
He said Egypt welcomed 500,000 tourists in April, more than double the number in January and up from just 200,000 tourists a month in the second half of last year.
“The important thing is there is an upward curve,” Enani said.
“We hope the numbers will increase again in the near future with the opening of some countries and the easing of restrictions, including in Arab countries, Europe and Russia,” he said.
“The return of tourism in Egypt does not only depend on us, but remains linked to other countries.”
Cairo has announced several major new archaeological discoveries in recent months, hoping to revive a sector which was battered by a 2011 uprising, political unrest and jihadist attacks.
While the industry recorded a rebound of nearly $13 billion in revenues for 2018-2019, tourism was hit hard again by the  pandemic.
Official figures show a drop of more than 20 percent in revenues for mid-2019 to mid-2020.
Egypt reopened to foreign tourists in July last year after having closed its borders in March. Visitors only need to produce a negative PCR test.
Russia earlier this year resumed flights to Egypt’s Red Sea resorts after the lifting of a flight ban.
Moscow banned direct flights to Egypt after the 2015 bombing of a Russian airliner shortly after it took off from the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, killing all 224 people on board.
 


Saudi sovereign fund PIF boosts US equities exposure to over $15 billion

Saudi sovereign fund PIF boosts US equities exposure to over $15 billion
Updated 43 min 6 sec ago

Saudi sovereign fund PIF boosts US equities exposure to over $15 billion

Saudi sovereign fund PIF boosts US equities exposure to over $15 billion
  • Fund increased its US stock holdings to $15.4 billion in the first quarter

DUBAI : Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund has increased its US stock holdings to $15.4 billion in the first quarter from nearly $12.8 billion at the end of 2020, according to a US regulatory filing on Monday.
The Public Investment Fund (PIF) bought 2.9 million class A shares in SoftBank Group Corp-backed Coupang Inc, equivalent to $141 million, and dissolved its share stake in Suncor Energy, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing.
It more than doubled its position in Activision Blizzard to 33.4 million shares from 15 million shares at the end of the fourth quarter, which led it to a $3.1 billion exposure from $1.4 billion.
The fund increased its shares in Electronic Arts Inc. to 14.2 million, equivalent to $1.9 billion, from a $1.1 billion position at the end of the previous quarter.
PIF, which did not immediately respond to a comment request on the filing, is at the center of Saudi Arabia’s plans to transform the economy by creating new sectors and diversifying revenues away from oil.
The $400 billion fund is expected to inject at least $40 billion annually in the local economy until 2025, and increase its assets to $1 trillion by that date, which would make it one of the world’s biggest sovereign wealth funds.
“PIF would have wanted to take advantage of the bullish sentiment in equity markets in Q1 to make opportunistic investments and add to its portfolio,” said Rachna Uppal, director of research at Azure Strategy.
“In line with domestic efforts to achieve the objectives of Vision 2030, the Saudis also appear to be favoring investments into sectors such as technology, mobility, and especially future mobility, tourism and entertainment,” she said.
At the start of last year PIF piled up minority stakes in companies worldwide, taking advantage of market weakness caused by the coronavirus crisis.
Monday’s filing showed the value of its biggest US stock holding, Uber Technologies, rose to nearly $4 billion in the first quarter, from $3.7 billion as of Dec. 31, as the ride-hailing company’s shares gained value during the period.
PIF was an early investor in Uber, taking a $3.5 billion stake in 2016, three years before its listing in 2019.


Qatar Investment Authority to take $740m chunk of US renewables firm Avangrid

Qatar Investment Authority to take $740m chunk of US renewables firm Avangrid
Updated 48 min 51 sec ago

Qatar Investment Authority to take $740m chunk of US renewables firm Avangrid

Qatar Investment Authority to take $740m chunk of US renewables firm Avangrid
  • QIA will buy shares worth $740 million and Iberdorla, the largest shareholder in Avangrid

RIYADH: Renewable energy provider Avangrid said it would sell shares worth a total of $4 billion to both the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) and Spanish Iberdrola Group for $ 51.40 a share.
QIA will buy shares worth $740 million and Iberdorla, the largest shareholder in Avangrid (based in Orange County, Connecticut, US), will purchase approximately $3.26 billion of stock, Asharq Business reported.
The deal is expected to close on Tuesday.
The Qatar Investment Authority last March also acquired 16 percent of the 53 million shares offered by Siemens Healthineers, through a private placement of $2.8 billion.
The fund is targeting deals in Asia, in an attempt to diversify its investment portfolio, which has a great focus and weight in America. Northern and Europe, Chairman Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani said in a previous interview with Bloomberg.

 


Egyptian neobank Telda raises $5m in Sequoia-led pre-seed round

Egyptian neobank Telda raises $5m in Sequoia-led pre-seed round
Updated 18 May 2021

Egyptian neobank Telda raises $5m in Sequoia-led pre-seed round

Egyptian neobank Telda raises $5m in Sequoia-led pre-seed round
  • It was the first investment for the American venture capital firm in the Middle East and North Africa

DUBAI: Telda, a Cairo-based digital banking application, has raised $5 million during its pre-seed funding round organized by US firm Sequoia Capital.
It was the first investment for the American venture capital firm in the Middle East and North Africa.
Global Founders capital and Class 5 Global also participated in the round.
The app recently announced it has received license from Egypt’s central bank to issue cards and on-board customers to its platform.
It has received 30,000 sign ups since it started its operations, it said.
The funding comes as digital-only banks rise in popularity across the region, where 60 percent of the population is estimated to be under the age of 25.
“Egypt boasts of a large, young, talented and tech savvy population with a strong appetite to innovate,” Sequoia partner George Robson said.
Egypt is among the top 10 countries most reliant on cash and with the highest rate of unbanked people, according to Merchant Machine.
“Today’s funding milestone promotes the digital transformation of the Egyptian economy and allows Telda to provide everyone with access to important financial services so they can fully participate in the economy,” Telda chief technology officer Youssef Sholqamy said.
Sholqamy, who was a former senior engineer in Uber’s infrastructure team, co-founded the startup with Ahmed Sabbah, who also founded the Egyptian bus-hailing service Swvl.


Europe slaps anti-dumping duties on MEG Saudi petchems product

Europe slaps anti-dumping duties on MEG Saudi petchems product
Updated 18 May 2021

Europe slaps anti-dumping duties on MEG Saudi petchems product

Europe slaps anti-dumping duties on MEG Saudi petchems product
  • The anti-dumping duties on MEG imports from Saudi Arabia are estimated at 11.1 percent

DUBAI: The European Commission (EC) announced proposed anti-dumping duties on monoethylene glycol (MEG) imports from Saudi Arabia and the US, Argaam reported.
The anti-dumping duties on MEG imports from Saudi Arabia are estimated at 11.1 percent, the financial news site reported, citing a document.
The companies affected by the new levy include Yanbu National Petrochemical Co. (Yansab), Saudi Kayan Petrochemical Co. (Saudi Kayan), Eastern Petrochemical Co. (Sharq), Saudi Yanbu Petrochemical Co. (Yanpet), Arabian Petrochemical Co. (Petrokemya), and Jubail United Petrochemical Co. (JUPC).
The original anti-dumping probe into Saudi and US MEG exports began in October 2020, Argaam said. It followed a petition from European ethylene glycol producers, which represent a quarter of total producers.
In December 2019, India also started an anti-dumping probe into imports of MEG from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, the UAE, and Singapore, Argaam said.
Monoethylene glycol is used to make polyester fibers and film as well as engine coolant.