Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci are the scientists whose company, BioNTech, is partnering with Pfizer to produce the vaccine that is 90% effective against a virus that’s already killed a million of us.
We can learn from their story of the power of love, of science, trust and immigration.
Dr. Şahin, 55, was born in Iskenderun, Turkey. When he was 4, his family moved to Germany where his mom and dad worked at the Ford factory in Cologne. He always wanted to be a doctor, and did so. He then earned his Ph.D. from the University of Cologne in 1993 for his work on immunotherapy in tumour cells.
Dr. Türeci, 53, was born in Germany to Turkish immigrant parents. Her father had been a physician in Istanbul. She abandoned her teenage hopes of becoming a nun in order to study medicine.
She and Dr. Şahin met early in their careers and on their wedding day they returned to the lab after the ceremony.
Then in 2001, they founded Ganymed Pharmaceuticals, which created drugs to treat cancer. In 2016, they sold their now 80-person company to Astellas Pharma for US $1.4 billion. Meanwhile, back in 2008, they’d started a second company, BioNtech, that used newer technologies like messenger RNA, to treat more cancers. As Dr. Şahin told their local paper, the Weisbaden Courier: “We want to build a large European pharmaceutical company.”
Since then, they have lived with their daughter in a modest apartment near their office. They ride their bicycles to work and do not own a car.
In January, Dr. Şahin read a scientific paper about the coronavirus in Wuhan, China. BioNTech was already using mRNA to spark an immune response against cancer cells and thought that it could be a “small step” from anti-cancer mRNA drugs to mRNA vaccines to fight viruses. He then assigned 500 BioNTech scientists to work on this and by March closed a partnership with Pfizer to develop and test a number of compounds.
Dr. Şahin had already developed a friendship with Pfizer’s CEO, Albert Bourla. Said Şahin last week: “We realized that he is from Greece and I’m from Turkey. It was very personal right from the beginning.”
But not personal in the way Greece and Turkey have scratched and clawed each other for years. They bonded over their shared backgrounds as immigrants and scientists. Albert Bourla is a veterinarian.
Said Pfizer’s CEO of his new business partner: “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%.”
At 7:55 p.m. last Sunday, the independent monitoring board assessing the effectiveness of the Pfizer/BioNTech trials called Alberta Bourla at his home to give him the results.
At 8:00 p.m, Bourla called Drs. Şahin and Türeci at their apartment in Mainz, Germany, to tell them the news.
Said Dr. Şahin: This was the second of truth, when a great weight fell off our minds.…. My wife and I sat down, talked to each other and made cups of Turkish tea.”
By Tuesday, the market value of BioNTech jumped to US $25.72 billion and their personal worth to US $6 billion.
Albert Bourla has called their new drug “the greatest medical advance in the last 100 years.”