The administration of the first safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines is reason for hope and celebration. The pandemic is global and the effort to combat its devastation must be international. A brief rundown of the development of just the two vaccines we hear the most about illustrates the breadth of the collaboration now under way. The driving forces in the work have included the altruistic pursuit of scientific knowledge, the profit motive of capitalism, and the unifying role of government.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine — officially known as BNT162b2 — was developed by two German scientists, a husband-wife team whose families emigrated from Turkey. In January 2020, Dr. Uğur Şahin was inspired by an article in The Lancet — the British medical journal — about an outbreak of disease in Wuhan, China, caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. He and his wife, Özlem Türeci, an immunologist who is chief medical officer at BioNTech, a small German company, immediately made development of a Covid vaccine their top priority. They shared their findings with Pfizer — a giant multinational corporation capable of carrying out large international clinical trials and producing huge numbers of vaccine doses.
The innovation at the heart of BNT162b2 is messenger RNA, which had never before been used in a vaccine. Katalin Karikó, a Hungarian biochemist who is a senior vice president at BioNTech, was instrumental in determining how to prevent the human body from attacking strands of mRNA while they are signaling the body to produce antibodies against deadly viruses targeted by the mRNA for neutralization. She now co-owns a patent for that discovery.
BioNTech encapsulated the mRNA with nanolipids provided by a Canadian company, got help from an Austrian company to prepare material for clinical trials, and partnered with Fosun Pharma in China to make the vaccine widely available in eastern Asia.
While Germany helped finance development of BNT128b2 with a $44 million grant to BioNTech, the U.S. Operation Warp Speed provided no developmental funding for the vaccine. The U.S. government did, however, pledge $1.95 billion early in the developmental process to purchase and distribute 100 million doses from Pfizer if the vaccine received emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, as it did on Dec. 11.
Pfizer has geared up its factory in the town of Puurs, Belgium to manufacture most of the 1.3 billion shots it expects to deliver worldwide in 2021. The first doses of that vaccine administered in the United Kingdom on Dec. 8 were manufactured in Belgium. The first doses administered to Americans were from a Pfizer facility in Kalamazoo, Mich.
Operation Warp Speed’s chief science adviser, Moncef Slaoui, is a Moroccan-born, Belgian-educated scientist who is a naturalized U.S. citizen. The CEO of Pfizer, Albert Bourla, is a Greek citizen whose name in his birthland is Άλμπερτ Μπουρλά.
The Massachusetts firm Moderna also received FDA emergency use authorization for its messenger-RNA vaccine, similar in concept to BNT162b2. Its development has been largely an American enterprise, though led by a French-born billionaire businessman named Stéphane Bancel.
Moderna developed its vaccine in collaboration with scientists at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, one of the National Institutes of Health. Clinical trials of this vaccine were funded by the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, part of the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. Operation Warp Speed provided Moderna with $2.5 billion to ensure that at least 100 million doses would be distributed in the U.S. by June 2021 — enough to vaccinate 50 million Americans.
Moderna is outsourcing much of the manufacturing of its vaccine. Lonza, a multinational Swiss pharmaceutical firm, is producing its active ingredient — called the “drug substance” — in Portsmouth, N.H. That product is shipped frozen to another one of Moderna’s partners, Catalent, which produces the finished product. The first doses of their vaccine were shipped from Catalent’s biologics facility in Bloomington, Ind. Lonza’s plant in Visp, Switzerland, will be producing it for European distribution.
While Pfizer is managing distribution of its vaccine, Moderna is using the health-care supply chain services of the McKesson Corp., partnering with Operation Warp Speed, to distribute it in the U.S.
All the facilities manufacturing these two vaccines, working at peak capacity, will be able to produce enough vaccine to inoculate only a small fraction of the nearly eight billion inhabitants of the globe. Fortunately, dozens of laboratories around the world have more than 60 other vaccines against Covid-19 under development.
A historic international effort is under way to bring this global pandemic under control.
Ronald A. Gabel, M.D. of Yarmouth Port is a retired anesthesiologist.