Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine is powered by German-Turkish minds

Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine is powered by German-Turkish minds

With Pfizer and BioNTech's breakthrough coronavirus vaccine announcement dominating the headlines this week, we take a look at the German-Turkish “dream team” behind the research.

Rapid vaccine research spearheaded in Mainz

Professor Uğur Şahin and Dr Özlem Türeci are the husband-and-wife co-founders of the drug development firm BioNTech, based in Mainz, Rhineland-Palatinate. The couple, who have devoted their lives to cancer immunotherapy, became an unlikely success story this week when they announced that their experimental coronavirus vaccine had proven to be more than 90 percent effective in phase 3 clinical trials. 

This makes BioNTech - together with its US partner, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer - the first drug maker to show successful data from a clinical trial of a coronavirus vaccine. The companies have said they have no serious safety concerns thus far, and expect to seek emergency use authorisation in the US by the end of the month. 

A couple from humble beginnings 

The news has catapulted the couple into the international spotlight - and seen the market value of their company skyrocket from 4,6 billion dollars a year ago to 21 billion dollars at close of play on Friday. This autumn, the couple become the first Germans with Turkish roots to enter the country's rich list, at number 93. 

Speaking of the clinical trial results, Şahin responded with the modesty characteristic of someone who is known for still riding a bike to the headquarters of their multi-billion-euro enterprise. He described it as a "victory for innovation, science, and of a global collaborative effort", which might hopefully help the world "regain a sense of normalcy." ugur sahin

The duo are both from modest backgrounds, the children of Turkish migrants who came to Germany in the late 1960s. Şahin moved to Germany at the age of four - his father worked at the Ford factory in Cologne - and he went on to study medicine in Cologne before focusing his own research on cancer treatments and immunotherapy. 

ozlem tureci

Türeci, who grew up in Lastrup in Lower Saxony, was inspired by her father, who was himself a doctor. She studied medicine in Saarland, where she met and eventually married Professor Şahin. The couple moved to Mainz in 2001, where they founded their first company, Ganymed. They later sold this venture to the Japanese pharma company Astellas, for 1,4 billion euros.

COVID-19 research and development

In 2008, the couple founded their second company, BioNTech, where they worked together on harnessing the power of the immune system to fight cancer. For this, they used a special genetic material called mRNA, which can train the human body to produce its own antigens. 

Their research took a turn in January this year, when Şahin first came across a scientific paper about the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan in China. He said it struck him how small the step was from anti-cancer mRNA drugs to mRNA-based viral vaccines. 

He quickly placed more than 400 researchers and scientists on the task of developing the drug - an operation dubbed project "light speed", which soon won the support of pharma giant Pfizer and Chinese pharmaceutical company Fosun. By March 2020, they had already developed 20 candidates for a vaccine, of which five were eventually tested for immune reactions. 

Asked whether he would take the vaccine himself, Şahin told Business Insider: "As soon as the vaccine has been permitted, I will be one of the first to do it. But first we need to make sure that the vaccine arrives with those who need it urgently: especially the elderly, people with pre-existing conditions and medical staff."

Images credit: © BioNTech SE 2020, all rights reserved

Emily Proctor


Emily Proctor

Emily grew up in the UK before moving abroad to study International Relations and Chinese. After this, she obtained a Master's degree in International Security and gained an interest in...

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