The world took note 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 in providing protection for those who would otherwise have been infected. The company was the first to apply for emergency use authorisation for a coronavirus vaccine in the US and it has announced it will soon take similar steps in Europe.
Antiviral vaccines are usually made with devitalised viral materials fabricated outside the body but BioNTech has pursued a new method of injecting genetically modified RNA into the patient. This prompts the patient’s cells to produce a characteristic protein of the relevant Sars-CoV-2 virus themselves, enabling the body’s immune system to build up an effective response before it encounters the real virus.
The great advantage of this approach is that it allows for the production of more than 1bn vaccine doses within the space of only a few months. It is also highly safe because the modified RNA can survive only at a very low temperature and quickly degrades in the body once it has performed its job. Any subsequent damage to the body is therefore extremely unlikely.
In close cooperation with the US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, BioNTech’s success augurs a rapid uptake of widespread vaccination in Europe and the US. Indeed, delivery contracts for millions of doses of the vaccine are already in place. And it is encouraging that the US drugmaker Moderna has also announced quantitatively similar results in its trials, using a closely related process involving a slightly more stable RNA variant.
More broadly, many other companies are advancing the frontier of next-generation RNA-based vaccines. Among these is CureVac, a company based in the German town of Tübingen, which has invented a new rapid-programming process for RNA that promises to be widely applicable.
Thanks to these new technologies, the world will likely be freed from the scourge of Covid-19 sometime in 2021 or 2022. Once again, we will be able to eat out and go to the theatre without worries; private weddings and parties will no longer be cause for concern. The airline and travel industries will quickly return to normal, and the global economy will be revitalised after a long period of lockdown-induced paralysis.
A major difference is that we will emerge with a completely new pharmaceutical industry, one that promises to provide extremely effective vaccines against numerous other infectious diseases. Moreover, RNA can, in principle, be programmed in such a way as to produce antibodies against specific types of cancer, promising forms of treatment that are far gentler than chemotherapy.
At BioNTech, the pioneers of the new RNA-based approach to drug development are Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci, a couple specialising in oncology and genetic research. Şahin, who holds a chair in experimental oncology at the University of Mainz, is one of the world’s top researchers in the study of personalised vaccines for cancer immunotherapy. Both are German citizens born to Turkish immigrants who came to the country decades ago.
Şahin and Türeci are prime examples of the successful integration of immigrants – including those from Turkey – into German society. They managed not only to gain a foothold in Germany but to thrive, thanks to hard work, an entrepreneurial spirit and strong cultural traditions.
BioNTech’s story shows that successful immigration is about more than welfare magnetism. Managed properly, immigration is a key source of new blood and fresh ideas for an ageing society.
It is worth recalling that Germany’s pharmaceutical industry was one of the earliest manufacturers of the contraceptive pill, starting in the 1960s. No other country embraced this method of contraception more comprehensively. As a consequence, however, the German fertility rate had fallen sharply by the early 1970s – six years before Italy experienced a similar decline, 10 years before Spain did and 20 years before Poland did.
Germany has been paying the price for this early pharmaceutical success. Its largest population cohort comprises people in their mid-50s, who were born just before the pill-induced drop in birthrates. All of the subsequent generational cohorts have steadily shrunk. Under these demographic conditions, stagnation and decline would be inevitable without immigration. In fact, Germany now needs a continuous inflow of migrants just to fill the population gap that its earlier pharmaceutical successes has caused. Fittingly, Germany’s pharmaceutical industry is achieving international acclaim thanks to the innovative work of two children of immigrants who were lured to the country by the demographic vacuum to which the industry itself contributed. Şahin and Türeci are pioneers in an area of genetic research that now promises to give a new breath of life to the pharmaceutical industry, the European economy and the entire world.
• Hans-Werner Sinn, is professor of economics at the University of Munich. He was president of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research and serves on the German economy ministry’s advisory council.