The German startup, which has been at the forefront of the vaccine race, has been slow to provide its shot in the European Union (EU) due to late approval from the bloc’s health regulator — the European Medicines Agency — and the small size of the order placed by Brussels.
Ugur Sahin, chief executive of BioNTech told Germany’s Spiegel: “At the moment it doesn’t look good – a hole is appearing because there’s a lack of other approved vaccines and we have to fill the gap with our own vaccine.”
Sahin founded BioNTech with his wife Oezlem Tuereci, who is the company’s chief medical officer. She told the Spiegel: “At some point it became clear that it would not be possible to deliver so quickly. By then it was already too late to place follow-on orders.”
While the United States ordered some 600 million doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer shot in July last year, the EU placed an order for only half that size in November. More than 300,000 lives have been lost to the pandemic across Europe.
The UK ordered 40 million doses in total, enough to inoculate 20 million people, under a third of the total population of 67 million.
The NHS is giving top priority to vaccinating those aged 80 and above. Frontline healthcare workers, care home staff and residents will be among those first in line. A UK grandmother became the first person in the world to be given the Pfizer Covid-19 jab last month.
Some logistical challenges around the vaccine also await the government and health services. Not only is this the most crucial vaccine rollout in recent history, the shot needs to be stored at -70C.
BioNTech has said that keeping it at -70C is only necessary for long-term storage over many months. It can be kept in the delivery thermoboxes at vaccine centres for up to 20 days and stored in a normal fridge for up to five days.
Each vial contains five doses, diluted with saline solution, which is “more than enough” to vaccinate five people, the company said. They must be used within six hours of opening.
The vaccine is given as two injections 21 days apart from each other, with the second dose being a booster. Immunity starts to kick in after the first dose but reaches its full effect seven days after the second dose.
Watch: UK begins COID-19 vaccine rollout