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


Gold miners keen on going green

Gold miners keen on going green
Updated 30 November 2021

Gold miners keen on going green

Gold miners keen on going green
  • In eight countries gold mining firms account for more than 5% of all government income



LONDON: The gold mining industry is keen to show off its green credentials.
The World Gold Council has revealed that of the $60.1 billion its 33 members generated in revenue in 38 countries around the world last year, 63 percent, or $37.9 billion of it remained in the nations where the mining operations were based.
The trade body, whose members account for around 40 percent of the global output, pointed out that in five countries the industry supported more than 3 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, roughly the size of internationally recognized overseas development assistance levels.
In eight countries gold mining firms accounted for more than 5 percent of all government income, the association said in a recent report titled, “The Social and Economic Contribution of Gold Mining.”
WGC Chief Financial Officer Terry Heymann said: “In Suriname the contribution is as high as 16.3 percent, Malawi its 8 percent and 6.6 percent in Burkina Faso.
“These contributions come as tax. But they also come in the form of new roads built into the site, or energy sources to power it, which can be more than the mine needs. The surplus energy is then pumped into the local community.”
One council member, Canada’s Barrick Gold, uses hydroelectric power plants at its Kibali gold mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which it shares with residents of the African country’s northeastern province Haut-Uele.
In Burkina Faso, UK-based Nordgold powers its Bassi and Bouly mines with solar power, which also supplies the local towns and villages in the Centre-Nord region.
“Mines often help fund schools, hospitals and health clinics, because a site needs a healthy and educated workforce,” Heymann added.
The WGC report added: “Host nations and communities might therefore come to regard responsible and sustainable gold mining operations as representing of a ‘window of opportunity’ for development.”
Such windows can last for sustained periods. It can take a decade to fully explore a mining site, and five years to build, with a lifecycle of 30 to 50 years.
However, the world’s biggest producers of the precious yellow metal are mature countries that do not rely on its production for development.
China is currently the world’s largest miner, producing around 368.3 tons last year, followed by Russia with 331.1 tons, Australia with 327.8 tons and the US with 190.2 tons.
Gold production was not greatly affected by the coronavirus disease hitting 3,400.8 tons last year, just 4 percent down on 2019.
In the third quarter of this year, gold production increased 4 percent year-on-year to 960 tons, the largest quarterly production level on record and 3 percent higher than the same period in 2019.
Gold demand jumped by almost 25 percent last year, rising above $2,000 an ounce for the first time last August, as investors looked for a safe haven during the pandemic.
But the metal has given back those gains as the health crisis shows signs of easing, despite the emergence of the omicron COVID-19 variant, and is just under 6 percent lower than it was 12 months ago at around $1,793 an ounce.
Analysts are split on whether gold will jump to $3,000 an ounce in 2022. Some predict a rise due to persistent negative real interest rates, inflationary pressures and US dollar weakness as a result of COVID-19 pandemic. Others believe its price could fall to around $1,700 an ounce next year, due to rising supply and an easing of political tensions between China and the US as the health crisis subsides.
Heymann noted that gold remained a store of value, particularly when compared with newer digital currencies, such as Bitcoin and ether, that have grabbed headlines in the financial press in recent years.
He said: “There is a place in investors’ portfolios for gold. It is a stable long-term store of value, the pandemic has shown that. It is very liquid, it’s a physical asset, you know exactly what it is. And it’s a market that has been around for thousands of years.”


Saudi Exchange’s Tadawul almost flat as omicron fears persist

Saudi Exchange’s Tadawul almost flat as omicron fears persist
Updated 30 November 2021

Saudi Exchange’s Tadawul almost flat as omicron fears persist

Saudi Exchange’s Tadawul almost flat as omicron fears persist

Saudi Arabia's stock market closed almost flat on Tuesday as concerns about the new omicron COVID-19 strain persisted.

The main stock index, TASI was down very slightly 0.45 percent, reaching 10,761.80 points at the closing bell.

Saudi’s parallel market Nomu was up slightly, by 0.87 percent at the end of the trading session.

Industrials Albaha and Saydan were among the top gainers, up 10 percent and 9.98 percent respectively.

With a share price decline of around 4 percent, Enaya and Amana Insurance were the lowest-performing stocks. 


Foreign investments to Saudi Arabia’s IT market hit $2.13bn

Foreign investments to Saudi Arabia’s IT market hit $2.13bn
Updated 30 November 2021

Foreign investments to Saudi Arabia’s IT market hit $2.13bn

Foreign investments to Saudi Arabia’s IT market hit $2.13bn

More than SR8 billion ($2.13 billion) of foreign investment has poured into Saudi Arabia’s IT market, Assistant Minister Munir El-Desouki has revealed.

Speaking as part of a virtual Fintech tour, El-Desouki argued the telecom sector in the Kingdom is also now becoming attractive to outside investors.

“With the unlimited support it received from our government and in partnership with the private sector, we were able to jump the Kingdom’s ranking in internet speeds from the 105th to the 6th globally,” he said.

“We invested in minds to bridge the digital skills gap. We trained more than 55,000 male and female trainees in qualitative digital skills, as part of the Future Skills initiative,” he added.

El-Desouki said the ministry has helped increase the Saudization rate in the sector to 58 percent, and has also seen the participation rate of women rise from 7 percent in 2017 to 28 percent.

The ministry launched the National Information Technology Development Program with a budget of SR25 billion to strengthen the telecom system, increase its effectiveness, and ensure its sustainability.

The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology is determined to raise the contribution of the digital economy to the Kingdom’s domestic product, Vice Minister of Communications and Information Technology Haytham Al-Ohali said.

He added that the ministry actively contributes with their partners in the government and private sectors to the development of the financial technology market.


NEOM-like BP hydrogen project to fuel UK transport

NEOM-like BP hydrogen project to fuel UK transport
Updated 30 November 2021

NEOM-like BP hydrogen project to fuel UK transport

NEOM-like BP hydrogen project to fuel UK transport

CAIRO: BP is planning a new large-scale green hydrogen production facility in the North East of England to deliver up to 500 megawatts of power ‎by 2030.

The British energy giant will build an initial 60 MW green hydrogen plant as the first step in its HyGreen Teesside project, with production set to begin by 2025, according to Recharge News.

The project is expected to fuel the development of Teesside into the UK’s first major hydrogen ‎transport hub, leading the way for large-scale decarbonization of heavy transport, airports, ports, and ‎rail in the UK, BP said.

The company said that it will rely on renewable energy power purchase agreements at first, but eventually aims to plug in the clean power it is developing in and around the UK, including offshore wind farms. 

BP's proposals echo Saudi Arabia utilities developer ACWA Power and NEOM's plan for a hydrogen-based ammonia production facility powered by renewable energy.

ACWA Power expects construction work on its green hydrogen plant in NEOM to start in the first half of 2022, according to the company’s CEO.

The Saudi project aims to produce 650 tonnes a day of hydrogen, the production of nitrogen by air separation using Air Products technology, and the production of 1.2 million tonnes annually of green ammonia using Haldor Topsoe technology.


UAE retailers ‘cautiously optimistic’ as sales rise above pre-COVID-19 levels for first time

UAE retailers ‘cautiously optimistic’ as sales rise above pre-COVID-19 levels for first time
Updated 30 November 2021

UAE retailers ‘cautiously optimistic’ as sales rise above pre-COVID-19 levels for first time

UAE retailers ‘cautiously optimistic’ as sales rise above pre-COVID-19 levels for first time

DUBAI: The UAE’s retail sector showed signs of recovery in the third quarter of 2021 as shoppers returned to malls or embraced e-commerce to send sales above pre-COVID-19 pandemic levels for the first time.

Point-of-sale transactions rose by 7 percent in the third quarter of the year, according to a recent report by retail giant Majid Al Futtaim.

The company, which runs major shopping malls in the region, such as Mall of the Emirates in Dubai, said the change was significant because it was the first time “consumer spending exceeded levels last seen in 2019.”

MAF group chief executive officer Alain Bejjani, said: “Our research shows a continuation of the buoyancy in consumer sentiment, with further positive indicators pointing to solid growth and momentum in the non-oil sector.”

Despite the COVID-19 health crisis having crippled consumer spending amid salary cuts and job losses, Dubai Economy, a government body set up to diversify the emirate’s economy, recorded the highest level of consumer confidence in a decade over the third quarter, the MAF report said.

However, the survey results were compiled before the emergence of the omicron COVID-19 variant, which may set back progress in the final quarter of this year.

According to MAF, footfall in its outlets in the third quarter jumped 18 percent compared to the same period a year ago, while online shopping was up by 34 percent over the same quarter.

“The adoption and acceleration of e-commerce and food delivery services are a great example of how changes to consumer behavior have become a ubiquitous part of post-pandemic day-to-day life for us all,” Bejjani added.

He pointed out that the recovery of retailers would depend heavily on innovation “in order to effectively cater to both new preferences and old habits.”

Dubai’s hosting of Expo 2020 has helped with the economic recovery (Shutterstock)

Bejjani noted that many factors had led to this “cautious optimism,” including an aggressive COVID-19 vaccination drive that allowed the UAE to lift restrictions relatively faster than other countries.

The revival of trade and tourism had also helped retailers, MAF added, and the positive economic outlook may be applied to the UAE’s Gulf neighbors, citing data organization Oxford Economics’ projection of up to 5.1 percent regional gross domestic product growth in 2022.

Other factors behind the retail recovery include Dubai’s hosting of Expo 2020, as well as the emirate’s growing real estate transactions, which official figures claim to be the “highest since 2015.”

Bejjani said: “While there are undoubtedly risks ahead, overall, we see much from which to draw strength, as the economic recovery continues to accelerate, and our communities adapt to living in a new post-pandemic world.”