Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci : the boffins behind the Covid-19 vaccine

Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci are an unassuming Turkish-German couple who had already made their fortune as biotech entrepreneurs when a strange new virus emerged in Wuhan. They saw it as their duty to leap into action.

Ugur Sahin  and Özlem Türeci are rapidly becoming “the most celebrated marriage in science since Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radioactivity”, says The Times. The Turkish-German couple behind BioNTech, which developed the break-through Covid-19 vaccine with Pfizer, are just as cosy as their eminent predecessors. They ride everywhere on bikes and spent their honeymoon in white lab coats. When Pfizer’s boss Albert Bourla telephoned to deliver the good news that the vaccine was 90% effective, they celebrated with a cup of tea. 

Operation Light Speed

It was the culmination of a long year’s work. Until last year, BioNTech, founded by the couple in 2008 and based in Mainz, was best known for building personalised cancer “vaccines” using messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) technology, which uses the cell’s genetic machinery to prompt the body to mobilise against tumours the way it would against a virus. That pioneering work won them the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2018 and cemented a small personal fortune when BioNTech floated in New York last year. But the couple have always lived modestly. 

They were having breakfast in late January when Dr Sahin, 55, mentioned an article he’d read in The Lancet about a strange new disease that appeared to be spreading in Wuhan, China. “When he researched the air links between Wuhan and other cities, he realised that Covid-19 was likely to become a global pandemic.” The couple sprang into action, assigning 600 employees to the hunt for a vaccine in an operation they dubbed Light Speed. As Dr Türeci , 53, puts it, they felt a “moral” imperative to help. Fortunately, their “versatile” mRNA technology proved adaptable. And it was a no-brainer to team up with Pfizer, for whom BioNTech had previously developed flu vaccines. 

News of the Covid-19 vaccine saw BioNTech’s value shoot up to $21.9bn – “more than four times that of German national carrier Lufthansa”, reports The Guardian. They themselves are now worth around £3bn. Since Dr Sahin and Dr Türeci  are both children of Turkish gastarbeiter (guestworkers) – an often harried group – their success, as the Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel noted, was “balm for the soul” of Germans with Turkish roots, after decades of being stereotyped as lowly-educated greengrocers. 

A high passion for science

Yet the pair have very different family backgrounds. Dr Sahin is the son of a car factory worker; Dr Türeci’s father was an Istanbul surgeon. She says science has always been her “high passion” – a trait she shares with her husband, who grew up wanting to become a doctor, says The New York Times. They met as students at Saarland University Hospital.

Initially focused on research and teaching, the couple got into business early – founding Ganymed Pharmaceuticals in 2001, says The Times. By the time they came to sell Ganymed for €1.3bn, they’d already established BioNTech as a separate vehicle. The couple have struck up a close friendship with Pfizer’s chief executive Albert Bourla, who is Greek – bonding over “their shared backgrounds as scientists and immigrants”. 

According to Dr Sahin, the success of their research proves the benefits of a cosmopolitan exchange of ideas. “In our company we have people from more than 60 countries. In science it does not matter where you are from, what counts is what you can do and what you are willing to do.”

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