T.The world took notice when the German startup BioNTech announced its breakthrough in the development of a new type of vaccine to combat Covid-19. After testing tens of thousands of people, BioNTech’s vaccine has been shown to be 95% effective at providing protection to those who would otherwise be infected. The company was the first to apply for an emergency use permit for a coronavirus vaccine in the US and has announced that it will soon be taking similar steps in Europe.
Antiviral vaccines are usually made with devitalized viral material manufactured outside of the body, but BioNTech has pioneered a new method of injecting genetically modified RNA into the patient. This prompts the patient’s cells to self-produce a signature protein of the relevant Sars-CoV-2 virus, allowing the body’s immune system to build an effective response before it encounters the real virus.
The big advantage of this approach is that more than 1 billion vaccine doses can be produced within a few months. It is also very safe because the modified RNA can only survive at a very low temperature and is broken down quickly in the body once it does its job. Any subsequent damage to the body is therefore extremely unlikely.
Working closely with US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, BioNTech’s success predicts a rapid introduction of widespread vaccination in Europe and the US. There are already supply contracts for millions of doses of the vaccine. And it is encouraging that the US drug company Moderna has also announced quantitatively comparable results in its studies, using a closely related process with a slightly more stable RNA variant.
More generally, many other companies are pushing the boundaries of the next generation of RNA-based vaccines. One of these is CureVac, a company based in Tübingen, Germany, which has invented a new fast-programming process for RNA that promises to be widely applicable.
Thanks to these new technologies, the world will likely be rid of the plague of Covid-19 sometime in 2021 or 2022. Again we can eat out and go to the theater without worry; private weddings and parties will no longer be a cause for concern. The aviation and travel industry will soon return to normal and the global economy will be revived after a long period of lockdown-induced paralysis.
A big difference is that a completely new pharmaceutical industry is emerging that promises to deliver highly effective vaccines against many other infectious diseases. In addition, RNA can in principle be programmed to produce antibodies against specific types of cancer, promising treatments that are much gentler than chemotherapy.
At BioNTech, the pioneers of the new RNA-based approach to drug development are Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci, a couple specializing in oncology and genetic research. Şahin, a professor of experimental oncology at the University of Mainz, is one of the world’s top researchers in the field of personalized vaccines for cancer immunotherapy. Both are German citizens, born of Turkish immigrants who came to the country decades ago.
Şahin and Türeci are excellent examples of the successful integration of immigrants – including those from Turkey – into German society. Not only did they gain a foothold in Germany, but they flourished thanks to hard work, an entrepreneurial spirit and strong cultural traditions.
The BioNTech story shows that successful immigration is more than welfare magnetism. Well managed, immigration is an important source of new blood and fresh ideas for an aging society.
It should be remembered that from the 1960s onwards, the German pharmaceutical industry was one of the first manufacturers of the contraceptive pill. No other country has more fully embraced this method of contraception. As a result, however, the German fertility rate had fallen sharply in the early 1970s – six years before Italy experienced a similar decline, ten years before Spain did and twenty years before Poland.
Germany has paid the price for this early pharmaceutical success. The largest cohort of the population is made up of people in their mid-50s, who were born just before the birth rate drop caused by the pill. All subsequent generation cohorts have been steadily shrinking. Under these demographic conditions, stagnation and decline would be inevitable without immigration. In fact, Germany now needs a continuous influx of migrants to close the population gap that has caused its past pharmaceutical successes. The German pharmaceutical industry is deservedly gaining international prominence thanks to the innovative work of two children of immigrants who were lured into the country by the demographic vacuum to which the industry itself contributed. Şahin and Türeci are pioneers in a field of genetic research that now promises to revitalize the pharmaceutical industry, the European economy and the entire world.
• Hans-Werner Sinn, is a professor of economics at the University of Munich. He was chairman of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research and is a member of the advisory board of the German Ministry of Economic Affairs.
© Project Syndicate