In a year that has been more than challenging for all of us, this is the best news so far: the US and an increasing number of other countries have approved the first vaccine against the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. And Europe is expected to follow soon. As German Minister for Education and Research, I shared the enthusiasm of so many of my countrymen about the development of this vaccine by the German company BioNTech in cooperation with the US company Pfizer.
This is a truly remarkable achievement for two reasons: the vaccine is the result of international cooperation in science combined with the pooling of forces and resources across continents. This should be the “new normal”. Only if we stand shoulder to shoulder can we tackle the challenges facing humankind. Moreover, this breakthrough shows the outstanding ability of Germany as a country of innovation – with researchers in the key role at all times, of course.
BioNTech is yet another example of Germany’s broad science and innovation landscape. Germany has long been one of the most innovative countries in the world. We have many talented people brimming with creativity and bold transformative ideas. Across Germany, established companies, start-ups, research institutions, universities and schools are generating new ideas, technologies, products and services that will help us increase our quality of life and make progress.
The numbers speak for themselves: Germany is well on its way to achieving the target of spending 3.5% of its GDP on research and innovation by 2025. We already achieved an R&D expenditure of 3.13% of our GDP in 2018. In that year, government and industry combined invested 105 billion euros in research and development – more than ever before! And we have seen an increase in the number of people working in research and development to more than 700,000 as of 2018, representing a rise of 45% in just twelve years.
Germany is a global leader in many future technologies, including in areas such as industrial applications of AI, sensors, batteries, quantum technology, digital medicine and climate technologies. In the current pandemic, it was the Berlin-based professor Christian Drosten, who delivered the PCR test that continues to be the best test available for coronavirus infection, making it possible to take effective measures to curb the spread of the pandemic.
We have a vision in Germany. Like the other European countries, we are currently setting the future course for our society and the economy. Our primary focus is to increase our prosperity while, at the same time, delivering on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and climate targets in particular. For decades, we have been talking about reconciling economic growth with environmental protection. Now, the time has come for us to finally walk the talk. This will be the central topic for the coming years. For our future. And we are achieving this through innovation on a broad scale. Particularly, by pushing for green hydrogen as future energy carrier and way to avoid carbon emissions in heavy industry.
Our success will depend in no small part on comprehensive government funding for fundamental and applied research. BioNTech is a prime example in this context. Past and sustained support of the Federal Research Ministry put BioNTech in such an excellent position to start developing an mRNA-based vaccine immediately at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2007, BioNTech benefited from the GO-Bio biotechnology funding initiative of the German Federal Research Ministry that supports life science researchers planning to start their own company. The goal of BioNTech’s project then was to develop optimized RNA-based vaccines for cancer immunotherapy. Before long, BioNTech went on to benefit from another funding initiative of our ministry, the Leading-Edge Cluster Competition (Spitzencluster-Wettbewerb), as part of a prize-winning cluster for individualized immune intervention. Headed by researchers Dr Özlem Türeci and Prof. Ugur Sahin, BioNTech was thus truly well positioned to develop a vaccine against COVID-19.
Our ministry co-funded the research that led to the development of the vaccine with a funding programme of unprecedented scale and scope. A total of 750 million euros are being made available in 2020 and 2021 to support the vaccine development work of three German companies – BioNTech situated in Mainz, CureVac in Tübingen and Dessau-based IDT. The primary purpose of this funding is to boost the scale-up of development and production capacity in Germany, and to increase the number of participants in clinical trials. This enables a more reliable forecast of the vaccine efficacy in particular groups such as the elderly already during the experimental trial phase.
The story of BioNTech is even more special because the founding couple, Drs Türeci and Sahin, both have immigrated to Germany. In Germany, people from all walks of life and origins can put down their roots and be successful in life. Germany is a country that is open to the world. We are happy to welcome motivated and ambitious people ,who come to Germany to expand their knowledge and play an active role in our science and business community. We are continuously working to attract the brightest minds to Germany – a country of innovation, which has its eyes on the future.
Author: German Federal Research Minister Anja Karliczek