Immunity From Pfizer-BioNTech COVID Vaccine May Last a Year, Says Scientist Behind the Shot

Uğur Şahin, one of the scientists behind the experimental Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against COVID, says he hopes it will provide immunity for at least a year, by giving the virus a "bash" on the head.

German biotechnology firm BioNTech and American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced in a press release on Monday that their COVID vaccine is 90 percent effective in preventing COVID-19, marking an important milestone in the pandemic that has killed over 1.2 million people worldwide, and seen over 52.8 million infected.

The companies did not release data on the vaccine, and their findings have not been peer-reviewed. If the vaccine meets certain safety criteria, they plan to submit a request for an emergency use authorization to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. This is expected to happen in the third week of November.

Scientists not involved in the research welcomed the news, but said it will not be clear exactly what the team has found until data is published.

Şahin told The Guardian: "If the question is whether we can stop this pandemic with this vaccine, then my answer is: yes, because I believe that even protection only from symptomatic infections will have a dramatic effect."

Addressing the immunity it might offer, he said: "We only have indirect clues so far. Studies of COVID-19 patients have shown that those with a strong immune response still have that response after six months. I could imagine we could be safe for at least a year." It is possible that shots would need to be given once a year, he said.

It remains unclear if it prevents people from spreading the virus, but Şahin said the results so far indicate it can.

The vaccine candidate, named BNT162b2, is what is known as an mRNA vaccine. It works by taking the genetic information for a spike that the virus uses to invade our cells, and prompts our own cells to display it. This triggers an immune response that it is hoped the body will remember and harness if the coronavirus tries to attack in the future. This approach has not yet been used to create a commercially available vaccine for humans.

Şahin said the vaccine will "bash the virus over the head." He said it confronts the coronavirus with "two defensive moves," firstly by stopping it from accessing our cells. If it does gain entry, a separate arm of the immune system, known as T-cells, will kick in and "bash it over the head and eliminate it."

"We now know that the virus can't defend itself against these mechanisms," said Şahin.

The vaccine is one of 11 against COVID currently in Phase III Clinical trials, and among over 200 being developed by scientists worldwide. Moderna, which also uses an mRNA platform, could be the next to release positive data on its vaccine candidate, Anthony Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the FT Live Global Pharmaceutical Summit on Wednesday.

Commenting on the Pfizer-BioNTech announcement on Monday, Eleanor Riley, professor of immunology and infectious disease at the U.K.'s University of Edinburgh, said in a statement that as the data has not been published, "[We] know nothing yet about the severity of cases that were seen in the trial, whether infection or infectiousness was prevented, or how long the immunity is expected to last."

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A stock image shows a scientist at work in a lab. Scientists around the world are working to develop a vaccine against COVID. Getty