The vaccine developed by Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech is already a mainstay in Europe’s efforts to control the pandemic — but it is a challenge to ship and protect.
The current version must be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit), limiting its distribution to specially equipped vaccination centres.
But Pfizer’s chief executive Albert Bourla told AFP in an interview that a new version is in the pipeline and that he was optimistic the vaccine will also prove effective against new virus variants.
Bourla said Pfizer has large amounts of real world data from some of the variant outbreaks.
“We have already data for the UK one — I hate using the countries, but people know them like that — which is very prominent in Israel… efficiency was 97 percent,” he said.
“We have data from South Africa, with the South African variant, and overall the efficacy was 100 percent. And also have data from Brazil. And it looks also this is very well controlled.”
Pfizer has not yet compiled sufficient data on the efficiency of its vaccine against the so-called Indian variant, the latest to raise concerns that a new wave of infections could overcome the immunisation drive.
But he said he was “optimistic” the vaccine would prove effective, and that the firm’s mRNA technology can be adapted to counter new strains.
Pfizer’s Bourla: Able to have a new vaccine within 100 days
“The thing that makes me feel more comfortable is that we have developed a process that once a variant becomes a variant of concern, we should be able to have a new vaccine within 100 days,” he said.
“It’s a tough target, but I am very comfortable that we should be able to do it.
“And because of the effectiveness of this mRNA technology, I believe that variants will not become an issue, we’ll be able to control them.”
The European Union is betting big on Pfizer’s relatively expensive vaccine, but there are concerns that the difficulty of keeping it at very cold temperatures will make it hard to distribute in poorer countries.
But here again Bourla was confident.
“We are doing actually two things on this front,” he said.
The US Food and Drug Administration allows the vaccine to be kept at minus 20 Celsius in a standard freezer for two weeks and Bourla thinks that could be extended.
“And we are about to generate the data for another two weeks. So that this formulation can be stored, let’s say, a month in minus 20 if we get approval for that,” he said.
“On the other hand, we are also working with a new formulation which is much improved, that will be ready to use: that means you don’t need to dilute the vaccine, it will come diluted.”