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COVID-19: The Pivotal Role of Immigrants in Coronavirus Vaccine Development

One only needs to visit their local hospital in the UK to see how the NHS simply could not function without immigrants. Nearly 30% of NHS doctors are from outside of the UK, without whom we would lack medical skills in a range of specialties. But it is not just foreign-born doctors on which we rely; many of our nurses, porters, cleaners, receptionists, and back-office staff (to name but a few roles) were not born in the UK. The recent news regarding the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines also highlighted the important role of immigrants in developing medicines.

The BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine

On 9th November 2020, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that their vaccine was more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 following phase three testing. Being the first likely and widely available vaccine to be announced publicly as effective, the news was received to great fanfare and relief globally. But there are two sides to this story; the vaccine itself, and the people who made it happen. If ever there was proof of the value of immigration, the story of two Turkish immigrants to Germany, without whom the Pfizer vaccine would not have been developed, is it. The vaccine is a joint venture between Pfizer and the German biotech start-up, BioNTtech. BioNTech was founded by its chief executive, Professor Ugur Sahin, who migrated to Germany as a child. Dr Özlem Türeci, the start-up’s chief medical officer, who also happens to be Ugur’s wife, is the daughter of a Turkish doctor who migrated to Germany.

Urgur’s biography outlines his formidable expertise spanning back to 1990 in this valuable sector, “Prof. Ugur Sahin, M.D. co-founded BioNTech in 2008 and has served as our Chief Executive Officer since that time. Prof. Sahin also served as the head of the Scientific Advisory Board of Ganymed Pharmaceuticals AG from 2008 until the company was acquired by Astellas Pharma Inc., or Astellas, in 2016”.

Özlem’s biography states that in addition to her role with BioNTech, she is also “President of the Association for Cancer Immunotherapy (CIMT). Dr Türeci earned her M.D. from Saarland University Faculty of Medicine, Homburg”.

BioNTech, which first focused on innovative cancer treatments, is now the first to use “novel messenger RNA technology” in a vaccine against COVID-19. Speaking to the BBC, Ugur said of their vaccine, “I'm very confident that transmission between people will be reduced by such a highly effective vaccine - maybe not 90% but maybe 50% - but we should not forget that even that could result in a dramatic reduction of the pandemic spread”. He has also been cautious (but no doubt realistic) on the prospects of the vaccine allowing life to return to normal; stating "I'm confident that...we could have a normal winter next year”.

Regardless of exactly when the BioNTech vaccine is available and rolled out, the chances are that the brilliance of Ugur and Özlem may not have been realised if not given a chance to flourish in Germany. Ugur benefitted (and hence so did the world) from a first-class science-based education in Germany, and this allowed him to take advantage of the research and business opportunities available.

The Moderna vaccine

The Pfizer BioNTech vaccine is not the only vaccine found to be effective. Only a week later after the Pfizer news, on 16th November 2020, US biotech company, Moderna, announced their vaccine was around 95% effective in preventing COVID-19 in phase three trials involving 30,000 participants. In the words of Moderna’s chief medical officer, Tal Zaks, "The overall effectiveness has been remarkable... it's a great day”. According to the results of the trial, the drug has no significant side effects apart from fatigue, headache and pain experienced initially by a limited number of patients.

The Moderna vaccine, like the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, uses RNA containing part of the genetic code of the virus to provoke an immune response. One of the main differences is that the Moderna variant only requires storage at -20C, rather than -70C for the Pfizer drug – making the former logistically easier to store and distribute without being rendered ineffective. Both vaccines require two injections three to four weeks apart.

What is also interesting is that Moderna was also founded by immigrants, including Canadian biologist Derrick Rossi and Lebanese-born scientist and investor Noubar Afeyan. The company’s Executive Committee also has a number of immigrants on board, including Chief Executive Officer, Stéphane Bancel (originally from France), Chief Technical Operations and Quality Officer, Juan Andres (originally from Spain), and Chief Medical Officer, Tal Zaks (from Israel).

Many More Vaccines To Come

According to the New York Times, there are currently 54 COVID-19 vaccines in human trials, and 87 vaccines being tested on animals. We can expect many more results of phase three trials to be announced in the coming weeks and months, followed by plans for vaccination rollouts. Most countries have invested in a portfolio of different vaccines, in a bid to hedge their bets as to which would prove effective.

Final Words

The development of COVID-19 vaccines world-wide is a triumph of international collaboration and science. It also highlights the importance of providing educational, research, and innovation opportunities to those who have the talent and motivation to make a difference. It is likely that many more vaccines which are announced as we enter 2021 will also show the success of immigrants who were given the opportunity to make a difference. If it had not been for the hard work of immigrants to Germany and the United States, who knows how many more people may be added to the COVID-19 death toll.

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