How his quest to cure a couple of cancers led to the West’s first COVID-19 vaccine

MAINZ, Germany – The history of the first Covid-19 vaccine approved in the West began 30 years ago in rural Germany, when two young doctors, children of Turkish migrants and fresh lovers, promised to invent a new treatment for cancer.

It took ten months for German BioNTech SE and its American partner Pfizer Inc. to develop the vaccine, which was approved for emergency use in the UK on Wednesday – more than three years ahead of the previous Western record for vaccination.

Yet, BioNTech’s founders Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci, the husband-and-wife team behind the successful endeavor, were the result of three decades of work that began long before the coronavirus appeared in humans last winter.

When the epidemic broke out, Dr. Sahin studied mRNA for years, genetic instructions that can be put into the body to protect it from viruses and other threats. In January, days before the disease was diagnosed in Europe, he used this knowledge to design a version of the vaccine on his home computer.

“The success of Ugur and Özlem is a fantastic combination of two people who complement each other,” said Rolf Zinkernagel, a Swiss Nobel laureate who once employed Dr. Sahin in his laboratory in Zurich. “An innovative scientist and a wonderful doctor, a great sense to run a business.”

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Dr. Sahin was born in 1965 on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, Iskenderun. He moved to Germany four years later when his father was recruited to the Ford plant near Cologne as part of a policy to rebuild post-war Germany with foreign labor.

Dr. Türec’s father arrived in Germany at about the same time to work at a Catholic hospital in the small town of Lastrup, where he was inspired by nuns caring for his father’s patients. After considering becoming a nun himself, he followed in his father’s footsteps.

Dr. Sahin and Dr. Türeci said that as a young doctor, their desperation is the driving force behind their mRNA work due to the scarcity of options for cancer patients for whom chemotherapy no longer works.

When the two met at the University Hospital in Homburg in the 1990s, “We realized that with standard therapy, we quickly get to a point where we have nothing to offer patients,” Dr. Türeci said. – It was a shaping experience.

The couple wrote her doctoral dissertation on experimental therapies. Christoph Huber, then head of the Department of Hematology and Oncology at Johannes-Gutenberg University in Mainz, now a non-executive director of BioNTech, persuaded them to join his faculty. Here, they began research into new treatments based on programming the body’s own immune system to defeat cancer as an infectious disease.

In 2001, the couple founded their first company, Ganymed Pharmaceuticals GmbH, to develop antibody treatment. Dr. Türec was CEO and Dr. Sahin was responsible for the research.

“The motivation … was to bridge the gap between science and survival: In our research, we saw solutions we couldn’t bring to patients’ hospital beds, ”Dr. Türeci said.

One day in 2002, Dr. Sahin and Dr. Türec left their lab around lunchtime and headed to the registry office, where they got married before pulling back their lab coat and returning to work.

The couple’s earliest and most important supporters were twin brothers and billionaire investors, Andreas and Thomas Strüngmann, who have poured more than € 200 million (equivalent to $ 241 million) into the couple’s businesses since 2001.

“Ugur is the visionary who will show us the future and then Özlem will tell us how to get there,” said Helmut Jeggle, Chairman of the Supervisory Board of BioNTech and Head of the Strüngmann Family Office. The brothers, he said, were happy to give the two scientists a wide strategic leeway.

In 2008, dr. Sahin and Türeci founded BioNTech to extend their research on antibody treatments to mRNA. Since Ganymed was sold for $ 1.4 billion in 2016 and the couple invested the proceeds in a new venture, BioNTech was their sole focus.

All of BioNTech’s executive directors are scientists, including finance and sales executives. The CEO retains his professorship at the local university, where Ph.D. candidates, sometimes subject to recruitment.

Speaking of his work, Dr. Sahin, who wears a Turkish amulet around his neck known as a Nazar, often touches the board to outline the formulas.

The BioNTech team, half of whom are women, includes scientists of 60 nationalities, including authorities in the field of mRNA such as Katalin Kariko, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

“Most biotechnology CEOs are for sale, but Ugur is a scientist who is convinced because science here is good,” said Prof. Kariko, who is Hungarian. “Our products don’t have blueprints, no one has ever done them.”

On Saturday, January 25, after reading a study that convinced the obscure disease in China would soon swallow the globe, Dr. Sahin set to work on his computer and designed a template for 10 possible coronavirus vaccines, one of which was BNT162b2 , will be a vaccine approved in the UK on Wednesday.

Later that day, he told Mr Jeggle that BioNTech was reorganizing its work to fight a virus that had no name yet and had not yet been diagnosed in Europe.

“I was the least surprised,” said Mr. Jeggle, who has been working with Dr. Sahin since 2001. “We didn’t have a lot of free capital and we tied it up with our cancer research.”

Dr. Sahin cited the Hong Kong flu of 1968-69, which claimed four million lives. Two hours later, Mr. Jeggle let go.

The following Monday, Dr. Sahin reorganized his employees into seven-day shifts and asked key workers to cancel their leave and stop public transportation. The Lightspeed Project, as it synchronized this effort, would develop the vaccine in months instead of months, as it has so far.

In February, Dr. Sahin observed the effect of jab under a microscope. He paid in the presence of two employees. “I think this is the birth of our vaccine candidate,” he declared.

BioNTech has worked with Pfizer to develop an influenza vaccine based on mRNA technology. So when Dr. Sahin needed a partner to organize clinical trials on the continent, to manufacture the product globally, and to distribute it in the United States and Europe, he knew who to turn to. The two companies signed a cooperation agreement in March, and the first human experiments began in April.

Later, BioNTech acquired an American company and a large pharmaceutical plant in Germany to increase production until licensing – a high-risk approach if the shot fails.

Morgan Stanley estimates the vaccine could generate more than $ 13 billion in revenue for Pfizer and BioNTech. All proceeds will be reinvested, Dr. Sahin said. Its main focus has not changed: the launch of mRNA-based and other innovative cancer treatments, 11 of which are under clinical trial.

Many scientists are still skeptical of this. Thomas C. Roberts, a senior postdoctoral scientist specializing in mRNA at the University of Oxford, said the results of the vaccination were exciting, but using mRNA would face key challenges beyond jabon.

In Mainz, Dr. Sahin disagrees that authorizing the vaccine will prove his technology and “introduce a whole new category of drugs”.