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Biontech must fight

Biontech delivered a vaccine against Corona at a record pace. In the meantime, demand for Comirnaty, still the world's top-selling drug, is flagging.
© Biontech
 

Soon, many governments will no longer be buying up hundreds of millions of doses at a time and distributing them free to the population. In the USA, the era of government tender offers will already come to an end at the beginning of 2023. Instead of just over 30 dollars, a shot will cost between 110 and 130 dollars in future. 

In addition, governments have ordered far too generously during the pandemic months. The government warehouses are full. Instead of scarcity, there is now abundance. And instead of panic, there is now calm on the virus front. US President Joe Biden has already declared the pandemic over. Analysts expect the market for Covid vaccines to shrink from $63.4 billion to a volume of about $7 billion worldwide in the second half of the decade, and thus to the size of the flu vaccine business.

For the Covid winners from Germany, who so far owe their sales and profits solely to the serum, the end of the pandemic also means the end of the short golden years. But what will remain of Biontech if Covid becomes just another flu?

The business partners of the US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer are relaxed. The giant has a well-oiled sales machine: "Our sales and marketing capabilities fit better in a free, unregulated market," CEO Albert Bourla has already told shareholders.

The situation is quite different for the inventors of the Vakzin. Biontech founders Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci have never been concerned with advertising and selling, but only with the scientific basis of their company. Thus, within only nine months, the Covid killer matured to market approval. At the same time, the company, which at the time had just 350 employees, set up production for billions of vaccine doses. Pfizer, on the other hand, took care of the complex tests for the novel vaccine, regulatory affairs, marketing and worldwide distribution.

Its own sales forces - typical of a classic pharmaceutical company - were not necessary; heads of state and government ordered en masse. Sales and marketing were limited to delivery and instructions for use of the drug. Now Şahin and Türeci have to learn things they were never interested in, in a kind of crash course. This is pushing their organisation to the limits - because the founders and their board team have already prescribed the next radical transformation for the young company.

They are still benefiting from the division of labour with Pfizer, still sharing profits and costs fifty-fifty. A grandiose deal that catapulted the couple Şahin and Türeci into the ranks of the richest and most famous Germans within a year. With the billions in profits from the vaccine business behind them, they are now gearing up for the next step. They want to take their medium-sized company, which has grown at the speed of light, into the league of the big global pharmaceutical players.

In future, Biontech vaccines are to reduce the spread of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria or AIDS. Above all, however, their novel mRNA technology is supposed to take the scourge of cancer away from mankind. The cure rates are supposed to increase and make cancer only a chronic disease even in advanced stages. 

In a few years, Biontech wants to provide nothing less than a unique technological platform, just as Apple did with the iPhone. A closed system that can not only prevent infectious diseases of all kinds, but above all enable a completely individualised form of cancer therapy. It would be something like the Holy Grail of medicine.

However, Türeci and Şahin can only roll out their technology platform effectively if they simultaneously manage to deliver on their research promises and build a vertically integrated and globally operating corporation. A machine that masters all steps of the value chain, starting with research and clinical development, through production and logistics, to marketing and distribution. And which, in addition, can move with absolute certainty in the highly complex world of regulatory authorities with all their strict safety mechanisms.

Biontech has developed a "toolbox" with which vaccines can be adapted at high speed to the most diverse pathogens along with their mutations. The proof is only a few weeks old: "We adapted a vaccine to the Omikron BA4 and BA5 lines within three months," Şahin says confidently.

In the long term, the vaccine toolbox should provide Biontech with a lucrative mass business in the fight against and containment of infectious diseases. The clinical trial phase for a combined vaccine against influenza and covid has just started. Other drugs against shingles, tuberculosis and malaria are already in the pipeline. In a few years, production should also be possible in Africa and Australia in high-tech containers that have been converted into clean rooms ("biontainers" in company parlance). This will ensure rapid production and supply in the future - whether for pandemics, epidemics or for clinical development, as in the project now started in Australia.

Even if sales of Comirnaty are already falling, the weapon against Corona will remain the world's top-selling drug for the time being. By the end of the year, according to the estimates of analysts at Berenberg Bank, there will be around 20 billion euros in the coffers.