The couple who helped save the world

David Gelles 17 November 2021

Not only did they create a COVID-19 vaccine and team up with Pfizer to save countless lives, they are also a shining example of integration

Three years ago, Dr Ugur Sahin took the stage at a conference in Berlin and made a bold prediction. Speaking to a roomful of infectious-disease experts, he said his company might be able to use its so-called messenger RNA technology to rapidly develop a vaccine in the event of a pandemic.

At the time, Dr Sahin and his company, BioNTech, were little known outside the small world of European biotechnology start-ups. BioNTech, which Dr Sahin co-founded with his wife, Dr Özlem Türeci, and Austrian oncologist Professor Christoph Huber, was mostly focused on cancer treatments. It had never brought a product to market. COVID-19 did not yet exist. But his words proved prophetic.

Two years later, on November 9, 2020, BioNTech and US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced that a coronavirus vaccine developed by Dr Sahin and his team was more than 90 per cent effective in preventing the disease among trial volunteers who had no evidence of having previously been infected. The stunning results vaulted BioNTech and Pfizer to the front of the race to find a cure for a disease that has killed more than 4.2 million people worldwide.

BioNTech co-founders, Dr Ugur Sahin and Dr Özlem Türeci at the company's headquarters in Mainz, Germany

“We believe it is the start of the end of the COVID era,” Dr Sahin said in an interview at the time. BioNTech began work on the vaccine in January 2020, after Dr Sahin read an article in the medical journal The Lancet that left him convinced that the coronavirus, at the time spreading quickly in parts of China, would explode into a full-blown pandemic.

Scientists at the company, based in Mainz, Germany, cancelled vacations and set to work on what they called Project Lightspeed.

“There are not too many companies on the planet with the capacity and the competence to do it so fast as we can do it,” Dr Sahin said in October 2020. “So it felt not like an opportunity, but a duty to do it, because I realised we could be among the first coming up with a vaccine.”

After BioNTech had identified several promising vaccine candidates, Dr Sahin concluded that the company would need help to rapidly test them, win approval from regulators and bring the best candidate to market. BioNTech and Pfizer had been working together on a flu vaccine since 2018, and in March 2020 they agreed to collaborate on a coronavirus vaccine.

Since then, Dr Sahin, who is Turkish, developed a friendship with Albert Bourla, the Greek chief executive of Pfizer. The pair said that they had bonded over their shared backgrounds as scientists 
and immigrants.

“We realised that he is from Greece, and that I’m from Turkey,” Dr Sahin said, without mentioning their native countries’ long-running antagonism. “It was very personal from the very beginning.”

Dr Sahin, 56, was born in Iskenderun, Turkey. When he was four, his family moved to Cologne, Germany, where his father worked at a Ford factory. He grew up wanting to be a doctor, and became a physician at the University of Cologne, where he earned a doctorate for his work on immunotherapy in tumour cells. 

"It felt not like an opportunity, but a duty to do it, because I realised we could be among the first coming up with a vaccine"

Early in his career, he met Dr Türeci. She had early hopes to become a nun and ultimately wound up studying medicine. Dr Türeci, now 54 and the chief medical officer of BioNTech, was born in Germany, the daughter of a Turkish surgeon who immigrated from Istanbul. On the day they were married, Dr Sahin and Dr Türeci returned to the lab after the ceremony.

The pair were initially focused on research and teaching, including at the University of Zurich, where Dr Sahin worked in the lab of Rolf Zinkernagel, who won the 1996 Nobel Prize in medicine.
In 2001, Dr Sahin, Dr Türeci and Huber co-founded Ganymed Pharmaceuticals, which developed drugs to treat cancer using monoclonal antibodies.

Seven years later they co-founded BioNTech, looking to use a wider range of technologies, including messenger RNA, to treat cancer. “We want to build a large European pharmaceutical company,” Dr Sahin said in an interview with the Wiesbaden Courier.

Even before the pandemic, BioNTech was gaining momentum. The company raised hundreds of millions of dollars and now has more than 1,900 people on staff, with seven offices across Germany and two in the United States. In 2018, it began its partnership with Pfizer.

In 2019, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation invested $55 million to fund its work treating HIV and tuberculosis. The same year, Dr Sahin was awarded the Mustafa Prize, a biennial Iranian prize for Muslims in science and technology.

Dr Sahin and Dr Türeci sold Ganymed for $1.4 billion in 2016. Two years ago, BioNTech sold shares to the public; as of July 2021, its market value stood at more than $54 billion, making the couple among the richest in Germany.

The two billionaires live with their teenage daughter in a modest apartment near their office. They ride bicycles to work and they do not own a car. “Ugur is a very, very unique individual,” said Albert Bourla, Pfizer’s chief executive. “He cares only about science. Discussing business is not his cup of tea. He doesn’t like it at all. He’s a scientist and a man of principles.”

"They ride bicycles to work and they do not own a car"

In Germany, where immigration continues to be a fractious issue, the success of two scientists of Turkish descent was cause for celebration. “With this couple, Germany has a shining example of successful integration,” stated the conservative current-affairs site Focus.

A member of Parliament, Johannes Vogel, wrote on Twitter that if it was up to the far-right Alternative for Germany party, “there would be no #BioNTech of Germany with Özlem Türeci & Ugur Sahin at the top.” 

“If it were up to critics of capitalism & globalisation,” he added, “there would be no cooperation with Pfizer. But that makes us strong: immigration country, market economy & open society!”

Dr Sahin said that when he and Dr Türeci learned about efficacy data, just one year ago, they marked the moment by brewing Turkish tea at home. “We celebrated, of course,” he said. “It was a relief.” 

Christopher F Schuetze contributed reporting from Berlin from New York Times (November 10, 2020), Copyright © 2020 by New York Times

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