In the summer of 2020, as the pandemic raged, infecting more than 200,000 people a day across the globe, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla and BioNTech CEO Uğur Şahin boarded an executive jet en route to the hilly countryside of Klosterneuburg, Austria. Their destination: a small manufacturing facility located on the west bank of the Danube River called Polymun Scientific Immunbiologische Forschung. Bourla and Şahin were on a mission to get the company to manufacture as many lipid nanoparticles as possible for their new Covid-19 vaccine, which was on a fast track to receive emergency authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine had been engineered with messenger RNA technology that instructs the body’s immune system to combat the coronavirus. But to get it safely into human cells, the mRNA needed to be wrapped in microscopic fragments of fat known as lipids. The Austrian manufacturing plant was one of the few places on earth that made the required lipid nanoparticles, and Bourla insisted Şahin go with him personally to press their case.
“The whole mRNA platform is not how to build an mRNA molecule; that’s the easy thing,” Bourla says. “It is how to make sure the mRNA molecule will go into your cells and give the instructions.”