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The next goal, according to the scientist behind the coronavirus vaccine, is cancer.

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The next goal, according to the scientist behind the coronavirus vaccine, is cancer.
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The next goal, according to the scientist behind the coronavirus vaccine, is cancer.

The next goal, according to the scientist behind the coronavirus vaccine, is cancer.

 

The scientist who won the race to deliver the first widely used coronavirus vaccine says people can rest assured the shots are safe, and the technology behind it will soon be used to fight another global scourge — cancer.

Ozlem Tureci, who co-founded the German company BioNTech with her husband, was working on a way to harness the body’s immune system to tackle tumors when they learned last year of an unknown virus infecting people in China.

Over breakfast, the couple decided to apply the technology they’d been researching for two decades to the new threat, dubbing the effort “Project Lightspeed.”

Within 11 months, Britain had authorized the use of the mRNA vaccine BioNTech developed with U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, followed a week later by the United States. Tens of millions of people worldwide have received the shot since December.

“It pays off to make bold decisions and to trust that if you have an extraordinary team, you will be able to solve any problem and obstacle which comes your way in real time,” Tureci told The Associated Press in an interview.

Among the biggest challenges for the small, Mainz-based company that had yet to get a product to market was how to conduct large-scale clinical trials across different regions and how to scale up the manufacturing process to meet global demand.

Along with Pfizer, the company enlisted the help of Fosun Pharma in China “to get assets, capabilities and geographical footprint on board, which we did not have,” Tureci said.

Among the lessons she and her husband, BioNTech chief executive Ugur Sahin, learned along with their colleagues was “how important cooperation and collaboration is internationally.”

Tureci, who was born in Germany to Turkish immigrants, said the company, which has staff members from 60 countries, reached out to medical oversight bodies from the start, to ensure that the new type of vaccine would pass the rigorous scrutiny of regulators.

“The process of getting a medicine or a vaccine approved is one where many questions are asked, many experts are involved and there is external peer review of all the data and scientific discourse,” she said.

Amid a scare in Europe this week over the coronavirus shot made by British-Swedish rival AstraZeneca, Tureci dismissed the idea that any corners were cut by those racing to develop a vaccine.

“There is a very rigid process in place and the process does not stop after a vaccine has been approved,” she said. “It is, in fact, continuing now all around the world, where regulators have used reporting systems to screen and to assess any observations made with our or other vaccines.”

Tureci and her colleagues have all received the BioNTech vaccine themselves, she told the AP. She replied, “Yes, we’ve been vaccinated.”

BioNTech’s valuation has increased as its popularity has risen during the pandemic, providing funds for the company to follow its original aim of creating a new cancer tool.

Messenger RNA, or mRNA, is used in BioNTech-Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines to take instructions into the human body for producing proteins that prime it to attack a particular virus. To get the immune system to attack tumors, the same idea can be used.

Tureci, BioNTech’s chief medical officer, said, “We have several different cancer vaccines dependent on mRNA.”

Tureci said it’s “very difficult to predict when it comes to creative growth” when asked when such a therapy would be available. But we hope to see our cancer vaccines in a position where people will get them in a couple of years.”

For the time being, Tureci and Sahin are working to ensure that the vaccines that governments have requested are administered and that the shots are successful in responding to any new virus mutations.

In a ceremony attended by Chancellor Angela Merkel, a qualified scientist herself, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier presented the wife and husband with one of the country’s highest decorations, the Order of Merit.

Steinmeier told the couple, “You started with a drug to treat cancer in a single person.” “And now we have a vaccine for the whole human race.”

Tureci said winning the award was “truly an honor” ahead of the ceremony.

She maintained, however, that designing the vaccine was a joint effort.

“It took a lot of effort from a lot of people: our team at BioNTech, all of the stakeholders who were involved, as well as governments and regulatory agencies,” Tureci said. “In our view, this is a recognition of this endeavor as well as a celebration of science.”

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