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The married ‘dream team’ behind the vaccine that gave the world hope

The founders of modest BioNTech worked tirelessly with giant Pfizer to adapt their ‘cancer vaccines’ to fight Covid-19.

Staff Writers
3 minute read
Half of the dream team: Ugur Sahin, CEO and co-founder of German biotechnology company BioNTech. Photo: AFP
Half of the dream team: Ugur Sahin, CEO and co-founder of German biotechnology company BioNTech. Photo: AFP

In late January 2020, an unassuming billionaire couple were having breakfast in their home in Mainz, Germany while reading the latest edition of distinguished British medical journal The Lancet, when an article caught their eye.

It was a preliminary analysis of a mysterious illness circulating in Wuhan, China.

The pair of boffins had already made their fortune as biotech entrepreneurs and soon concluded the new disease had the potential to become a global pandemic.

Their company, BioNTech, specialised in developing just the kind of vaccine technology the world was going to need. They agreed it was their duty to leap into action.

Born in Turkey, Ugur Sahin had emigrated to Germany with his parents. He studied medicine at Cologne University where he fell in love with Ozlem Tureci an equally brilliant medical student, also the child of a Turkish immigrant.

Ozlem Tureci and her husband Ugur Sahin. Photo: Zyrtare

Their first company, Ganymed Pharmaceuticals, explored whether modified genetic code, or Messenger RNA (mRNA), could be used to fool the body into mobilising against invading tumours and viruses.

They formed BioNTech in 2008 and eventually sold Ganymed for US$1.4 billion in 2016.

Despite now being worth a fortune, the “husband and wife dream team” lived modestly with their teenage daughter and always rode to work on pushbikes.

In 2018, they started to explore a broader range of cancer fighting tools. Their research work began to attract attention and in 2019, Bill and Melinda Gates invested US$55 million to develop HIV and tuberculosis vaccine programmes.

Until last year, BioNTech, was best known for building cancer “vaccines” using mRNA technology which had never been approved for use with humans, but in 2020 the couple immediately saw how their technique could be adapted to fight Covid-19.

BioNTech was already working with US drug giant Pfizer on a flu vaccine and as coronavirus spread around the world, the two companies agreed to collaborate on developing a Covid-19 vaccine with the research funded by Pfizer, and the science primarily developed by BioNTech.

In November, Pfizer announced, to worldwide acclaim, that the final results of late-stage trials showed their vaccine to be 95% effective.

Sahin and Tureci celebrated at home with glasses of Turkish tea.

On Wednesday, British regulators granted the vaccine the Western world’s first approval for emergency use, heralding the beginning of the end of the pandemic and catapulting the couple to international admiration.

“We believe it is really the start of the end of the pandemic,” Sahin told CNN. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla hailed the authorisation as “a historic moment in the fight against Covid-19”.

Developing, trialing, seeking regulatory approval and being granted it within the space of a year is unheard of in the history of vaccines.

“Our trust-based relationship with Pfizer is the key to why we have been so fast,” Sahin told the Associated Press. “It allowed us to share data and avoid any delay.”

At a press conference on Wednesday, BioNTech’s chief commercial officer Sean Marett said on behalf of Sahin and Tureci, “I don’t think we’ve had time to think about it yet because we’re all too busy packing vials for shipping to the UK.”

There is talk of a possible Nobel Prize in 2021 for the couple the Times of London calls, “the most celebrated marriage in science since Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radioactivity”.

Their extraordinary achievement has seen the market valuation of BioNTech swell to US$29 billion.

BioNTech’s laboratories are on a Mainz street appropriately named An der Goldgrube or At the Gold Mine.

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