Of the 'dream team': The married couple behind Pfizer's Covid vaccine

WION Web Team
New York, New York, United States of America Published: Nov 10, 2020, 11:25 AM(IST)

BioNTech Chief Executive Ugur Sahin Photograph:( Reuters )

Story highlights

Physicians Ugur Sahin and Oezlem Tuereci, who bonded over their love of medical research, are the people behind the Covid-19 vaccine that could change the world. 

Positive data on BioNTech and US partner Pfizer Inc's COVID-19 vaccine came as a happy surprise for not only the world, but also the married couple behind the German biotech firm.

Physicians Ugur Sahin and Oezlem Tuereci, who bonded over their love of medical research, are the people behind the Covid-19 vaccine that could change the world. 

Pfizer and BioNTech are the first drugmakers to show successful data from a large-scale clinical trial of a coronavirus vaccine. The companies said they have so far found no serious safety concerns and expect to seek US emergency use authorisation later this month.

Reuters describes BioNTech Chief Executive Ugur Sahin as the son of a Turkish immigrant working at a Ford factory in Cologne. He now figures among the 100 richest Germans, together with his wife and fellow board member Oezlem Tuereci according to weekly Welt am Sonntag.

The market value of Nasdaq-listed BioNTech, which the pair co-founded, had ballooned to $21 billion as of Friday's close from $4.6 billion a year ago, with the firm set to play a major role in mass immunisation against the coronavirus.

Sahin has, however, maintained his humility, as he typically walks into business meetings wearing jeans and carrying his signature bicycle helmet and backpack with him.

Doggedly pursuing his childhood dream of studying medicine and becoming a physician, Sahin worked at teaching hospitals in Cologne and the southwestern city of Homburg, where he met Tuereci during his early academic career.

Medical research and oncology became a shared passion of the couple.

Tuereci, the daughter of a Turkish physician who had migrated to Germany, said in a media interview that even on the day of their wedding, both made time for lab work.

Together they honed in on the immune system as a potential ally in the fight against cancer and tried to address the unique genetic makeup of each tumour.

Life as entrepreneurs started in 2001 when they set up Ganymed Pharmaceuticals to develop cancer-fighting antibodies, but Sahin - by then a professor at Mainz university - never gave up academic research and teaching.

They won funding from MIG AG as well as from Thomas and Andreas Struengmann, who sold their generic drugs business Hexal to Novartis in 2005.

That venture was sold to Japan's Astellas in 2016 for up to $1.4 billion. By then, the team behind Ganymed was already busy building BioNTech, founded in 2008, to pursue a much broader range of cancer immunotherapy tools. That included mRNA, a versatile messenger substance to send genetic instructions into cells.

HOW IT HAPPENED

Sahin came from humble roots to build two billion-dollar companies but still rides to work on his mountain bike.

People who have worked with Sahin for years said his tendency toward understatement belies a relentless ambition to transform medicine, exemplified by the leap of faith to a COVID-19 vaccine.

The BioNTech story took a twist when Sahin in January came across a scientific paper on a new coronavirus outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan and it struck him how small the step was from anti-cancer mRNA drugs to mRNA-based viral vaccines.

BioNTech quickly assigned about 500 staff to project "light speed" to work on several possible compounds, winning pharma giant Pfizer and Chinese drugmaker Fosun as partners in March.

(with inputs from Reuters)

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