London: Very few know their names yet. At the moment, however, the entire hopes of the world in the fight against COVID-19 rest on them. They are the ‘dream team’ scientist couple who came up with a big idea that could protect humanity from the COVID-19 virus. So far the virus has killed more than a million people across the world. However, countries, governments, masses, prayers are all with the Turkish couple Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci. German biotech company BioNTech is developing the COVID-19 vaccine with US pharmaceutical giants Pfizer. Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci who own BioNTech are in the forefront of developing the COVID-19 vaccine.
The world breathed a sigh of relief at Monday’s news that the experimental vaccine developed by BioNTech and Pfizer has shown positive results. The vaccine candidate is in the all-important phase 3 trials. , Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci displayed characteristic modesty.
BioNTech chief executive, Şahin is known for still cycling on bike to the headquarters of a company. He said the trial results were above all a ‘victory for innovation, science and of a global collaborative effort’”. He is hoping that the vaccine might hopefully help the world ‘regain a sense of normalcy’.
The comments hinted at the scientific rigour, unrelenting work ethic and appetite for entrepreneurship. These qualities have seen Sahin and Türeci’s company leave others behind in the race to develop the COVID-19 vaccine. Their achievements also made the couple the first Germans with Turkish roots to enter their country’s rich list this autumn, at No. 93.
The two scientists have Turkish roots as their parents migrated to Germany in the late 1960s. Şahin, 55, was born in İskenderun on the Mediterranean coast. However, when he was four years old he moved to Germany, where his father worked at the Ford factory in Cologne.
The fifty-three-year-old Türeci is BioNTech’s chief medical officer (CMO). She grew up in Lastrup, Lower Saxony. Her family was settled there as her Istanbul-born father worked as a surgeon at a small Catholic hospital.
For both, cross-pollinating cultures proved dynamic childhood environments. Türeci has described herself as a ‘Prussian Turk’. In her many interviews she has mentioned her admiration for the nuns who looked after patients at her father’s hospital. Sahin on the other hand is a football fanatic, but he also found inspiration in popular science books he borrowed from a church library.
Two scientific brains meet
After getting his doctorate degree with a thesis on immunotherapy treatment for cancer cells, Şahin went to Saarland University in the town of Homburg. Türeci was already studying medicine there and love blossomed.
The couple married in 2002. It meant a brief interruption of their research work as they donned good clothes and slipped out of their labs and dash to the registry office on their wedding day. Their daughter was born four years later.
Since 2001, Şahin and Türeci have been based in Mainz. It is a city on the river Rhine famous for its carnival culture and as the home of Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the movable-type printing press.
Two years ago Sahin took the stage at a conference in Berlin and made a bold prediction. He was 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 global pandemic.
At the time, Dr Sahin and his company, BioNTech, were little known outside the small world of European biotechnology start-ups. BioNTech, was mostly focused on cancer treatments. It had never brought a product to market. COVID-19 did not exist then.
But two years later, Sahin’s words have proved prophetic.
Efficacy of new vaccine
BioNTech and Pfizer announced Monday that a vaccine for the coronavirus developed by Dr 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.
“It could be the beginning of the end of the COVID-19 era” Dr Sahin was quoted Tuesday as by the ‘New York Times’.
‘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, canceled vacations and set to work on what they called ‘Project Lightspeed’.
There are not too many companies which have the capacity and the competence to develop the vaccine as fast as we can do it,” Dr Sahin had said in an interview last month. “So it felt not like an opportunity, but a duty to do it. I realised we could be among the first coming up with a vaccine.”
Association with Pfizer
BioNTech then identified several promising vaccine candidates. Dr Sahin then concluded that the company will need help to rapidly test them, win approval from regulators and bring the best candidate to market. So in came Pfizer.
BioNTech and Pfizer had been working together on a flu vaccine since 2018. In March, they agreed to collaborate on a coronavirus vaccine.
Since then, Dr Sahin, who is Turkish, has developed a friendship with Albert Bourla, the Greek chief executive of Pfizer. The pair said in recent interviews that they had bonded over their shared backgrounds as scientists and immigrants.
“We realized 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,” he added.
Has to be personal, otherwise the wait would have been longer. Now, there’s some hope of ray at the end of the dark COVID-19 tunnel. That ray can only get brighter in the days to come as Dr Sahin says. So the world waits with bated breath for some form of normalcy to return.