​BioNTech SE and Pfizer Inc. raised this year’s production target for their COVID-19 vaccine to as many as 2.5 billion doses, with the biotech’s chief executive predicting a version of the shot that can be stored in refrigerators will be ready within months.

The new target represents an increase of about one quarter from the company’s earlier estimate.

The world’s thirst for more shots has challenged vaccine makers, who had to pivot from a breakneck development pace to ensuring production capacity. Pfizer and BioNTech have repeatedly revised their targets as they scaled up production, largely avoiding the controversies facing other drugmakers such as AstraZeneca Plc.

“We are seeing an increased demand,” CEO Ugur Sahin said in an interview. “At the moment we have prepared ourselves to produce 2.5 billion doses, but in principle there is room for further increase.”

On Tuesday, BioNTech said it’s also pushing forward to address a weakness of its shot -- the need for longer-term storage at ultra-cold temperatures. The company said it’s advancing with two new formulations: a ready-to-use vaccine that can be stored at fridge temperatures, and a freeze-dried version that could be stockpiled by governments in the future.

The vaccine, the first cleared in the U.S. and European Union, has catapulted BioNTech into the front ranks of European biotechs, allowing it to generate enough revenue to report its first annual profit.

Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, his wife and co-founder, have said they’ll use the vaccine profits to push forward with research in other areas as well. The messenger RNA technology is being studied for other types of vaccines, including seasonal flu, and could also have applications as a treatment for cancer and other diseases.

BioNTech’s ADRs rose 5.9 per cent before U.S. exchanges opened. Pfizer was little changed.

Fridge Not Freezer

The partners had previously said they could make about 2 billion pandemic shots this year, enough to immunize 1 billion people. Next year, they could have capacity to make 3 billion doses, Sahin said in a March 9 interview.

By early in the second half of this year, the companies should be able to offer a ready-to-use formulation of the vaccine that could be stored at refrigerator temperatures, Sahin said. That would make it much easier for doctors’ offices and pharmacies to store and dispense the shot. The current version requires freezer storage.

Also in the works is a freeze-dried formulation, which will require a clinical trial to ensure it’s safe and works as well as the original. That study will start in the U.S. in April, BioNTech said, and should have data by the third quarter. A freeze-dried version of the vaccine could be stockpiled by governments and shipped and stored even more easily.

BioNTech reported 366.9 million euros in fourth-quarter profit, compared with a 58.2 million-euro loss in the year-earlier quarter. As of year-end, the company had 1.2 billion euros in cash. It expects to spend as much as 850 million euros on research and development this year.

The company is planning more than a dozen patient trials in oncology, including experimental mRNA treatments for melanoma and cancers of the head and neck, breast, kidney and liver. It’s also working on cell therapies and other ways of recruiting the immune system to fight cancer.

BioNTech said it expects 9.8 billion euros (US$11.5 billion) in revenue from the supply contracts signed already, which amount to 1.4 billion doses. Revenue expectations include milestone payments from BioNTech’s partners and will rise as more orders are signed, the company said in a statement on Tuesday.