Behind the COVID Vaccine – The Austrian Key to the BioNTech Breakthrough

As the world awaits a vaccine, Polymun, a small high-tech company provides essential ingredients for one of the most promising candidates.

By now, it feels familiar: Once again, Europe is the epicenter of the pandemic, as a second wave hit this winter. Society moves inward, with over 20 countries in partial or complete lockdowns as of mid-November, including most of Austria’s neighbors. The rise in new infections and exceeding demand for healthcare facilities is pushing everyone to the brink once more. However, one thing is different this time around – recent vaccine developments are close to ready, with the most promising already approved for distribution in the UK and expected to be available in Austria by late January. At last, there is a ray of hope on the horizon, even if seen only through frozen window panes. Without the technology and know-how of small Austrian biopharmaceutical firm Polymun, these vaccines would not work the way they do.

On November 9, American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and the German company BioNTech announced the success of their collaboration in the third-phase clinical study of their vaccine against SARS-CoV-2. They had enrolled over 43,000 voluntary participants in their study, in the United States and around the world. According to the primary efficacy analysis, published on November 18, their vaccine candidate showed over 95% effective in preventing the virus in subjects without evidence of prior infection. Developed and tested in just 10 months, this is not only the fastest vaccine humanity has ever created, but possibly also one of its most potent. For comparison, one dose of the existing MMR vaccine is 93% effective against measles, 78% effective against mumps, and 97% effective against rubella. The effectiveness of the annual flu vaccine is estimated to be around 40-60%.

Named BNT162b2, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine candidate has authorized by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as further data is being discussed with regulatory authorities globally.

“When we embarked on this journey 10 months ago this is what we aspired to achieve,” says Prof. Uğur Şahin, CEO of BioNTech. “Especially today, while we are all in the midst of a second wave and many of us in lockdown, we appreciate even more how important this milestone is on our path towards ending this pandemic and for all of us to regain a sense of normality.” Şahin co-founded BioNTech in 2008 along with his wife and fellow scientist Özlem Türeci and oncologist Christopher Huber, with the aim to develop and manufacture technology and medication for individualized cancer therapies based on the use of messenger RNA (mRNA). A decade later, BioNTech partnered with Pfizer, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, to develop vaccines with an mRNA basis against influenza.

All for One & One for All

Unlike conventional vaccines, which often contain an inactivate pathogenic virus or protein strain, RNA-based methods consist of an mRNA sequence that encodes the genetic information required for the body’s cells to produce the virus antigen, which is met with an immune response. RNA vaccines have the advantage of faster, more cost-effective production; additionally, they are comparatively safer as they do not produce infection elements and can be standardized and scaled. The challenge lies in getting the RNA to enter the cell before degradation. Fortunately, Austrian company Polymun, based in Klosterneuburg just outside the city limits of Vienna, had a solution.

“RNA alone is quite vulnerable, so it would be degraded very easily,” Dr. Dietmar Katinger, CEO of Polymun told Metropole. “The RNA is packaged together with lipids into small spheres, which are called lipid nanoparticles.” Less than a hundred nanometers in size, “the formulation into lipid nanoparticles provides [not only] the necessary protection of the RNA but also transportation into the cell, as a vaccine would only work if the RNA arrives in the cell, not just around the cell,” Katinger explains.

Polymun specializes in formulating such lipid nanoparticles, providing these on a contract basis to clients such as Curevac in Germany, Arcturus Therapeutics in the USA, the Imperial College London and, of course, Pfizer and BioNTech, which has placed these small alpine innovators in the limelight.

Founded in 1992 by Dietmar’s father, Prof. Hermann Katinger, Polymun employs about 80 scientists, technicians and support staff, many of them graduates of the BOKU (Vienna’s University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences), where Prof. Katinger heads the Institute for Applied Microbiology. “Vienna is a good place to be,” Katinger explains, “together with the scientific environment from the universities, which is where we originated from, Vienna is an attractive place for people migrating here from other parts of the world, so we have a very good pool of talent.”

From Alabama to Austria

Katinger believes in collaboration; “The lipids used in the formulation are manufactured in Alabama, somewhere in the middle of nowhere,” he laughs, “other parts in Germany; and we send them from Austria to Belgium for testing and then back to the US, so this is really an international cooperation.”

In fact, the global race is more defined by camaraderie than rivalry. “For those working together, it’s not really important if they are Austrians, Germans, US Americans, Canadians or whatever, they are people working on a vaccine.” And while time is a major factor, Katinger does not see the search for a vaccine as a global race. “Race, to me, has some kind of a negative connotation, so I would say, especially in these circumstances, it is a friendly competition. I would even dare say that nobody would mind if somebody else would be successful. There is a need for many doses, so it is better if more than one succeeds.”

The societal responsibility on us all requires similar collaboration and the combined efforts across the globe show the benefits of cooperation, solidarity and a common goal, both in research and humanity. Pfizer and BioNTech currently forecast they can distribute 50 million vaccine doses in 2020, and 1.3 billion in 2021 (two shots are needed to fully immunize one person). A second vaccine, developed by Moderna Inc., has made significant milestones in testing. The hopes are high and while a vaccine would likely not eradicate the virus completely, “it could be downgraded to just another infection where you can protect vulnerable people and a broad swath of the population,” Katinger reassures. So, while we are still locked down to contain the virus, let’s take courage, for the saving jab may be just around the corner – as is the Austrian company that helped make it possible.

Mahnoor Jalal
Mahnoor Jalal
A Pakistani raised in Vienna, Mahnoor is currently pursuing a degree in Physics. In addition to her scientific inclination, she has an avid interest in media with experience in graphic design and podcast production. She enjoys creative writing and music, particularly singing.

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