BioNTech says Turkey to receive 4.5 million coronavirus vaccine doses by March
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BioNTech says Turkey to receive 4.5 million coronavirus vaccine doses by March

After ordering 50 million from Sinovac, Turkey added to its coronavirus vaccine stock with a new deal that could see up to 30 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech shot delivered to the country.

Turkey could receive up to 4.5 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine developed by BioNTech and Pfizer by late March, with the number potentially reaching 30 million by 2021’s end, BioNTech’s co-founder and CEO Uğur Şahin said on Saturday.

Şahin’s remarks came a day after Health Minister Fahrettin Koca announced late Friday that Turkey has reached an agreement with BioNTech to procure 550,000 doses for the initial shipment, with the option to buy as much as 30 million doses.

Announcing the agreement on Twitter, Koca said the reason for the delay in the deal was due to liability issues.

“The reason for the delay was the fact that the producer did not accept any responsibility with regards to potential problems that could arise from the production,” he said, adding that the disagreement was later solved.

“Citizens who would like to get a dose will be asked for an informed consent,” Koca said.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency (AA), Şahin said he was happy to sign an agreement that allowed him to help his homeland. Şahin was born in Turkey’s southeastern province of Iskenderun in 1965 before moving to Germany as a 4-year-old.

Explaining the details of the agreement, Şahin said the logistics of the deal and training of health workers who will carry out the inoculations were the priority for the first part of the vaccine delivery, 550,000 doses.

BioNTech/Pfizer’s vaccine must be shipped and stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius, the sort of temperature typical of an Antarctic winter. Combined with orders reaching millions of doses, the vaccine poses unprecedented logistical problems for many countries.

“That amount will arrive in Turkey by year is over. First, we need to prepare for the logistics. What are the potential side effects of the vaccine, allergic reaction for example, what needs to be done when that happens, all this information needs to be shared properly. We need the health workers to be prepared, we want the vaccinations to be carried out safely,” he said.

“We hope to send 30 million doses by the end of 2021. We are planning to send 4.5 million doses by the end of March, as these vaccines are needed all around the world. We want to deliver these doses fairly. Hopefully, by the end of next year, we can deliver the 30 million doses we agreed on,” Şahin told an AA reporter.

Speaking about any potential further deals to exceed the 30 million dose agreement, Şahin said it would depend on availability.

“We want to produce around 1 billion doses in cooperation with Pfizer next year. We need to deliver these vaccines to 80 countries. As long as we have the doses, we would be more than willing to provide Turkey with more,” he said.

But he warned that the production of the vaccines was a complex process and the actual goal of reaching 1.3 billion doses might require cooperation with other companies.

“We will start working with other companies again. If we can carry out our plans on how to increase capacity, we can disclose it in January or February. I believe we can increase it. We don’t have a guaranteed plan yet.”

Liability and side effects

Regarding the liability issues that delayed the deal from being made sooner, Şahin thanked Koca for the help the minister provided during the negotiations as he explained the disagreement was over the company’s desire to limit liability in case of a lawsuit due to side effects.

“We make deals with same terms for all countries. Europe, U.S., Japan, all had the same standards. The limited liability is to determine how much our company can take responsibility for,” he said and added that the lawsuits were usually in exorbitant sums that could bankrupt a company.

“When you make something, people can sue you for it. You know it as well, they can claim ‘this or that happened.’ When that happens, we are left helpless because there can be lawsuits demanding billions. It makes our life harder. We made a safe vaccine for people. But that doesn’t mean we are safe from lawsuits. That’s why we need certain limits to protect the company,” Şahin explained.

According to Şahin, around 1.5 million people have already been inoculated with the mRNA-based coronavirus vaccine found by his company, and no severe side effects have been reported yet.

The most common side effects from the vaccine are headache, fatigue, pain in the arm that received the vaccine and fever in rare cases. Şahin said all the side effects disappear within two days usually.

The most severe side effect, however, is an allergic reaction, which occurs within 30 minutes of inoculation and at a rate of 1 in 50,000 people.

“An allergic reaction can happen within the first 30 minutes after receiving the shot. That’s why health personnel need to be nearby for the 30 minutes. That could be the only significant side effect,” Şahin said.

Precaution still a must

As countries around the world prepared for the monumental task of vaccinating their population, with some nations already having begun, hope flourished that life will soon return to normal after a long year under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic.

But Şahin warns the precautions must stay a while longer – at least until 70% vaccination rates are reached among populations.

“Our vaccines won’t be able to curb infections in the winter. People need to keep acting with discipline, keep protecting themselves and others. The vaccines will first go the elderly and health workers. We can protect them,” he said.

Reminding that Turkey has also signed a deal with Chinese biopharmaceutical company Sinovac for 50 million doses, Şahin said reaching a threshold in number of vaccinated people was key before returning to normal.

“We need to vaccinate 70% of the people. If succeed in that before next winter comes, then we can return to a normal life. It’s vital to remain disciplined,” he said.

On Turkey’s deal with Sinovac, Şahin said it was a good move by Turkey toward securing enough doses to reach 70% threshold.

“The vaccine from China shows its effective as well. I think its around 85% or 86% effective. That can be considered a good and effective vaccine. There should be no concerns whether a vaccine is from BioNTech, China or any other government. Chinese scientists have developed this vaccine after a lengthy experimentation and clinical trial process. The important thing is for Turkey to produce necessary number of doses,” Şahin said.

While Şahin quoted an 85% efficiency rate for the Sinovac vaccine, Turkey on Thursday said it was 91.25% effective according to interim data from a late-stage trial that involved 7,371 volunteers.

With a 3 million-dose initial shipment of the Sinovac vaccine arriving in Turkey on Monday, nearly 9 million people are set to get vaccinated in the first stage, starting with health workers and people at risk group.

According to Dr. Serhat Ünal, an infectious disease expert serving on Turkey’s Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board, no major side effects were detected during the vaccine trials in Turkey, except in one case where an allergic reaction was observed.

Sinovac has also inked supply deals for its vaccine with countries including Indonesia, Brazil, Chile and Singapore, and negotiations with the Philippines and Malaysia are underway.

Branch in Turkey

Aside from BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine, Şahin said the company is involved in other research branches, and he announced the company was in talks to open a branch in Turkey.

“We are bringing our products to Turkey for the first time. We want to also carry out research in Turkey. We are in talks with Turkish Scientific and Technological Research Council (TÜBITAK). We are also in contact with several professors in various universities. We want to establish a BioNTech branch in Turkey,” he said.

“We want to carry out cancer research in Turkey, aside from our work on vaccines for infectious diseases. Hopefully, we will start carrying out clinical studies on cancer in Turkey by next summer. We have plans. We want to achieve those.”

Şahin said the company’s long-term goal was to open several offices across Turkey and carry out research and development studies. But life needs to return to normal first, he warned.

“We want to work with Turkish universities and companies. In the first year, we might carry out three projects and take it from there if we succeed.”

Şahin urged people once again to not give up on precautions.

“We need to avoid endangering others or our loved ones. Help is on the way. It will be here by summer. We need to patient. Hopefully we will have chance to return to our normal lives by next summer’s end. We will celebrate our success together then.”

This article originally appeared in DAILY SABAH on 27 Dec 2020.