The Husband-and-Wife Team Behind the Leading Vaccine to Solve Covid-19

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Two years in the past, Dr. Ugur Sahin took the stage at a convention in Berlin and made a daring prediction. Speaking to a roomful of infectious illness consultants, he mentioned his firm may have the ability to use its so-called messenger RNA expertise to quickly develop a vaccine within the occasion of a worldwide pandemic.

At the time, Dr. Sahin and his firm, BioNTech, had been little recognized exterior the small world of European biotechnology start-ups. BioNTech, which Dr. Sahin based along with his spouse, Dr. Özlem Türeci, was principally centered on most cancers therapies. It had by no means introduced a product to market. Covid-19 didn’t but exist.

But his phrases proved prophetic.

On Monday, BioNTech and Pfizer introduced {that a} vaccine for the coronavirus developed by Dr. Sahin and his staff was greater than 90 p.c efficient in stopping the illness amongst trial volunteers who had no proof of getting beforehand been contaminated. The gorgeous outcomes vaulted BioNTech and Pfizer to the entrance of the race to discover a remedy for a illness that has killed greater than 1.2 million individuals worldwide.

“It could be the beginning of the end of the Covid era,” Dr. Sahin mentioned in an interview on Tuesday.

BioNTech started work on the vaccine in January, after Dr. Sahin learn an article within the medical journal The Lancet that left him satisfied that the coronavirus, on the time spreading shortly in components of China, would explode right into a full-blown pandemic. Scientists on the firm, primarily based in Mainz, Germany, canceled holidays and set to work on what they referred to as Project Lightspeed.

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

After BioNTech had recognized a number of promising vaccine candidates, Dr. Sahin concluded that the corporate would want assist to quickly check them, win approval from regulators and produce the perfect candidate to market. BioNTech and Pfizer had been working collectively on a flu vaccine since 2018, and in March, they agreed to collaborate on a coronavirus vaccine.

Since then, Dr. Sahin, who’s Turkish, has developed a friendship with Albert Bourla, the Greek chief government of Pfizer. The pair mentioned in current interviews that they’d bonded over their shared backgrounds as scientists and immigrants.

“We realized that he is from Greece, and that I’m from Turkey,” Dr. Sahin mentioned, with out mentioning their native international locations’ long-running antagonism. “It was very personal from the very beginning.”

Dr. Sahin, 55, was born in Iskenderun, Turkey. When he was 4, his household moved to Cologne, Germany, the place his dad and mom labored at a Ford manufacturing facility. He grew up eager to be a physician, and have become a doctor on the University of Cologne. In 1993, he earned a doctorate from the college for his work on immunotherapy in tumor cells.

Early in his profession, he met Dr. Türeci. She had early hopes to turn into a nun and finally wound up finding out medication. Dr. Türeci, now 53 and the chief medical officer of BioNTech, was born in Germany, the daughter of a Turkish doctor who immigrated from Istanbul. On the day they had been married, Dr. Sahin and Dr. Türeci returned to the lab after the ceremony.

The pair had been initially centered on analysis and instructing, together with on the University of Zurich, the place Dr. Sahin labored within the lab of Rolf Zinkernagel, who received the 1996 Nobel Prize in medication.

In 2001, Dr. Sahin and Dr. Türeci based Ganymed Pharmaceuticals, which developed medicine to deal with most cancers utilizing monoclonal antibodies.

After a number of years they based BioNTech as effectively, wanting to make use of a wider vary of applied sciences, together with messenger RNA, to deal with most cancers. “We want to build a large European pharmaceutical company,” Dr. Sahin mentioned in an interview with the Wiesbaden Courier, an area paper.

Even earlier than the pandemic, BioNTech was gaining momentum. The firm raised lots of of thousands and thousands of {dollars} and now has greater than 1,800 individuals on workers, with places of work in Berlin, different German cities and Cambridge, Mass. In 2018, it started its partnership with Pfizer. Last 12 months, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation invested $55 million to fund its work treating H.I.V. and tuberculosis. Also in 2019, Dr. Sahin was awarded the Mustafa Prize, a biennial Iranian prize for Muslims in science and expertise.

Dr. Sahin and Dr. Türeci bought Ganymed for $1.Four billion in 2016. Last 12 months, BioNTech bought shares to the general public; in current months, its market worth has soared previous $21 billion, making the couple among the many richest in Germany.

The two billionaires dwell with their teenage daughter in a modest residence close to their workplace. They experience bicycles to work. They don’t personal a automobile.

“Ugur is a very, very unique individual,” Mr. Bourla, Pfizer’s chief government, mentioned within the interview final month. “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. I trust him 100 percent.”

In Germany, the place immigration continues to be a fractious challenge, the success of two scientists of Turkish descent was trigger for celebration.

“With this couple, Germany has a shining example of successful integration,” wrote the conservative-business website Focus.

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

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

Dr. Sahin has had little time for politics this 12 months. BioNTech has been so busy creating a vaccine that the corporate has not finalized the monetary particulars of its partnership settlement with Pfizer.

“Trust and personal relationship is so important in such business, because everything is going so fast,” Dr. Sahin mentioned. “We still have a term sheet and not yet a final contract on many things.”

Chris Schuetze contributed reporting from Berlin.

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