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.”


Twitter: @frankkanedubai

Evergrow signs $400m loan to restructure debts

Evergrow signs $400m loan to restructure debts
Updated 22 April 2021

Evergrow signs $400m loan to restructure debts

Evergrow signs $400m loan to restructure debts
  • $74 million of loan will finance construction of fertilizer plant in Sadat City
  • Mashreq Bank and National Bank of Egypt led 12-bank syndicate

RIYADH: Egyptian fertilizer company Evergrow has signed a $400 million loan agreement with a syndicate of 12 banks led by Mashreq Bank and the National Bank of Egypt (NBE), who acted as the facility arrangers, Asharq reported citing a joint statement on Wednesday.

The plan consists of $326 million that will be used to restructure previous debts Evergrow owes to the same banks, while the remaining $74 million will finance the construction of the third phase of the company’s fertilizer plant in Sadat City, slated for completion within nine months.

The financing is one of the largest dollar loans granted by banks to private sector companies in the Egyptian market in the field of potassium fertilizers during the past 10 years.

The deal is part of Evergrow’s financial reform program sponsored by the Central Bank of Egypt.

The new funds will help raise the annual production capacity of all the company’s products from 817,000 tons currently to 1.15 million tons annually, said Evergrow Chairman Mohamed El Kheshen.

Egypt’s Minister of Trade and Industry Neveen Gamea in March said that Egypt aims to increase its exports — especially to EU, African and Arab markets — to $100 billion, through the implementation of a strategic plan.

Turkish crypto founder flees with reported $2bn

Turkish crypto founder flees with reported $2bn
Updated 22 April 2021

Turkish crypto founder flees with reported $2bn

Turkish crypto founder flees with reported $2bn
  • Launched aggressive campaigns to lure investors
  • Founder reported to have flown to either Albania or Thailand
ISTANBUL: Turkish prosecutors on Thursday opened an investigation after the Istanbul-based founder of a cryptocurrency exchange shut down his site and fled the country with a reported $2 billion in investors’ assets.
The Thodex website went dark after posting a mysterious message saying it was suspending trading for five days on Wednesday because of an unspecified outside investment.
Turkish security officials then released a photo of Thodex founder Faruk Fatih Ozer going through passport control at Istanbul airport on his way to an unspecified location.
Local media reports said Ozer — reported to be either 27 or 28 years old — had flown either to Albania or Thailand.
HaberTurk and other media said Thodex shut down after running a promotional campaign that sold Dogecoins at a big rebate — but did not allow investors to sell.
Reports said the website and the entire exchange had shut down while holding at least $2 billion from 391,000 investors.
“The victims are panicked,” investors’ lawyer Oguz Evren Kilic was quoted as saying by HaberTurk.
“They are lodging complaints at prosecutors’ offices in the cities they reside.”
Prosecutors launched an investigation into the businessman on charges of “aggravated fraud and founding a criminal organization,” the private DHA news agency said.
Thodex has launched aggressive campaigns to lure investors.
It had first pledged to distribute luxury cars through a flashy advertising campaign featuring famous Turkish models.
The platform then launched its Dogecoin drive.
The cryptocurrency is getting particularly popular among Turks who are looking to preserve their saving in the middle of a sharp decline in the value of the local lira.
The Turkish crypto market remains unregulated despite growing skepticism from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government about the safety and use of digital currencies.
The Turkish central bank has decided to ban the use of crypto currencies in payments for goods and services starting from April 30.
It warned that cryptos “entail significant risks” because the market is volatile and lacks oversight.
“Wallets can be stolen or used unlawfully without the authorization of their holders,” the central banks warned last week.

Riyadh property prices rise 2% in Q1 even as rents fall

Riyadh property prices rise 2% in Q1 even as rents fall
Updated 22 April 2021

Riyadh property prices rise 2% in Q1 even as rents fall

Riyadh property prices rise 2% in Q1 even as rents fall
  • Mortgages rise, underpinning demand
  • Office sector remains under pandemic pressure

RIYADH: Property prices in the Saudi capital edged higher in the first quarter even as rental rates eased, JLL said.
Riyadh’s residential sale prices registered an annual increase of 2 percent for apartments and villas. By contrast, rental rates reported yearly declines of 1 percent for apartments and villas, it said. Some 7,700 homes were handed over during the period, the broker said.
“Looking ahead, the government initiatives that are pushing Riyadh to be the business hub of the region are expected to spur local and international demand,” JLL said in the report.
It said that strong government support helped to boost demand for residential property in the first three months of the year.
New mortgage loans for individuals jumped by 33,000 contracts in January 2021, it said.
The total value of mortgages increased to SR16.4 billion, according to the Saudi Arabia Monetary Agency (SAMA).
The Riyadh office market remains under pressure with average lease rates across a basket of Grade A & B office spaces in the city falling by 2 percent over the quarter compared to a year earlier.

IATA predicts Middle East airline losses of $4.2 billion in 2021

IATA predicts Middle East airline losses of $4.2 billion in 2021
Updated 22 April 2021

IATA predicts Middle East airline losses of $4.2 billion in 2021

IATA predicts Middle East airline losses of $4.2 billion in 2021
  • Airlines will burn through $81 billion of cash this year
  • Industry crisis much longer and deeper than expected

RIYADH: Middle Eastern airlines will endure losses of $4.2 billion in 2021, down from $7.9 billion in 2020, as pandemic travel restrictions remain in place in much of the world, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
Losses will be equal to 13.8 percent of revenues in 2021, an improvement from 28.9 percent in 2020, but still an historically bad number. Demand will be 67.6 percent lower than 2019 levels, while capacity will shrink 58.9 percent, IATA said.
While the region’s carriers will benefit from some of the highest vaccination rates globally, their relatively small home markets mean airlines like Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways will remain heavily exposed to international travel restrictions.
Globally, airline industry losses will narrow to $47.7 billion in 2021 from $126.4 billion in 2020, IATA said.
Airlines will burn through $81 billion of cash this year, following $149 billion in 2020, while the industry has taken on a further $220 billion of debt for a burden of $651 billion, IATA said.
“This crisis is longer and deeper than anyone could have expected,” said IATA Director General Willie Walsh. “Losses will be reduced from 2020, but the pain of the crisis increases. Government imposed travel restrictions continue to dampen the strong underlying demand for international travel.”

L&T Construction to build oil and gas supply base in King Salman Energy Park

L&T Construction to build oil and gas supply base in King Salman Energy Park
Updated 22 April 2021

L&T Construction to build oil and gas supply base in King Salman Energy Park

L&T Construction to build oil and gas supply base in King Salman Energy Park
  • The contract is valued at between $133m and $332m

RIYADH: Indian contractor Larsen & Toubro has been appointed by Oilfields Supply Company Saudi to design and build what it describes as one of the world’s largest oil and gas supply bases, in King Salman Energy Park in Dammam.

The project, valued at between INR1,000 crore ($133.3 million) and INR2,500 crore, involves the construction of industrial facilities, an administration building, ancillary buildings, associated infrastructure and storage yards, and is scheduled for completion in 30 months, L&T said in an emailed statement.

“This project will act as a business incubator to support the oil and gas industry in the Kingdom and help accelerate industrial growth in the energy sector,” said M. V. Satish, senior executive vice president (Buildings), L&T.