Meet Turkish-German Power Couple Behind Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine

The novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, which broke out in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019 has spread to over 280 countries across the world, restricting their way of lives and destroying their economies. Since January when it started spreading to other countries, there had been hopes for a cure or vaccine to save economies and lives.

Hope beckoned on Monday when American pharmaceutical company, BioNTech and German company, Pfizer announced that a vaccine for the coronavirus developed by Dr. Ugur Sahin and his team was more than 90 percent 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 1.2 million people worldwide.

According to the New York Times, two years ago, Dr. Sahin took the stage at a conference in Berlin and made a bold prediction. 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 global pandemic.

At the time, Dr. Sahin and his company, BioNTech, were little known outside the small world of European biotechnology start-ups. BioNTech, which he founded with his wife, Dr. Özlem Türeci, in 2008, was mostly focused on cancer treatments.

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

The American media outlet reported that BioNTech began work on the vaccine in January, 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.

Dr. Sahin, 55, was born in Iskenderun, Turkey. When he was 4, his family moved to Cologne, Germany, where his parents worked at a Ford factory. He grew up wanting to be a doctor, and became a physician at the University of Cologne. In 1993, he earned a doctorate from the university for his work on immunotherapy in tumour cells.

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 53 and the Chief Medical Officer of BioNTech, was born in Germany, the daughter of a Turkish physician who immigrated from Istanbul. On the day they were married, Dr. Sahin and Dr. Türeci were said to have 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.

Sahin has been described as a “modest and humble” person by colleagues, including Matthias Theobald, a fellow oncology professor at Mainz University, who has worked with him for two decades.

“Despite his achievements, he never changed from being incredibly humble and personable,” Matthias Kromayer, a board member of the MIG AG venture capital firm that has financially backed BioNTech, told Reuters on Monday.

On Tuesday Sahin said he believed the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine “will not be the only vaccine” against Covid-19, noting that a number of Phase 3 vaccine trials are ongoing.

He also said BioNTech’s goal, in cooperation with Pfizer, is to ramp up production of their vaccine candidate and that they hope to manufacture up to 1.3 billion doses by the end of 2021, if it receives authorization.

The scientist reiterated that BioNTech and Pfizer plan to ask the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to authorise emergency use of the vaccine, with that request coming perhaps as early as next week.

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