By Bojan Pancevski
MAINZ, Germany -- The story of the first Covid-19 vaccine to be
authorized in the West began 30 years ago in rural Germany when two
young physicians, the children of Turkish migrants and freshly in
love, pledged to invent a new treatment for cancer.
It has taken 10 months for Germany's BioNTech SE and its U.S.
partner, Pfizer Inc., to develop the vaccine that was granted
emergency-use authorization in the U.K. on Wednesday -- beating the
previous Western record for a vaccine by more than three years.
Yet, for BioNTech's founders, Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci, the
husband-and-wife team behind the successful endeavor, it was the
outcome of three decades of work, starting long before the
coronavirus first appeared in humans last winter.
When the pandemic broke out, Dr. Sahin had spent years studying
mRNA, genetic instructions that can be delivered into the body to
help it defend itself against viruses and other threats. In
January, days before the illness was first diagnosed in Europe, he
used this knowledge to design a version of the vaccine on his home
"The success of Ugur and Özlem is a fantastic combination of two
people who complement each other," said Rolf Zinkernagel, a Swiss
Nobel Prize laureate who once employed Dr. Sahin in his Zurich lab.
"He is an innovative scientist, and she is an amazing clinician
with a great sense for running a business."
Dr. Sahin was born in Iskenderun on Turkey's Mediterranean coast
in 1965. He moved to Germany four years later when his father was
recruited to work at a Ford factory near Cologne as part of a
policy to rebuild postwar Germany with foreign labor.
Dr. Türeci's father, a surgeon, came to Germany around the same
time to work at a Catholic hospital in the small town of Lastrup,
where she grew up inspired by the nuns who tended to her father's
patients. After considering becoming a nun herself, she followed in
her father's footsteps.
Dr. Sahin and Dr. Türeci said their frustration as young
physicians about the dearth of options faced by cancer patients for
whom chemotherapy was no longer working had been the driving force
behind their mRNA work.
When the two met at Homburg university hospital in the 1990s,
"We realized that with standard therapy we would quickly come to a
point where we didn't have anything to offer to patients," Dr.
Türeci said. "It was a formative experience."
The couple wrote their doctoral dissertations on experimental
therapies. Christoph Huber, then head of the hematology and
oncology department of the Johannes--Gutenberg University in Mainz
and now a BioNTech nonexecutive director, persuaded them to join
his faculty. There they began researching new treatments based on
programming the body's own immune system to defeat cancer like an
In 2001, the couple set up their first company, Ganymed
Pharmaceuticals GmbH, to develop an antibody treatment. Dr. Türeci
was chief executive and Dr. Sahin was in charge of research.
"The motivation...was to bridge the gap from science to
survival: In our research we saw solutions that we couldn't bring
to our patients' hospital beds," Dr. Türeci said.
One day in 2002, Dr. Sahin and Dr. Türeci left their laboratory
around lunchtime and headed to the registry office, where they got
married before donning back their lab coats and returning to
The earliest and most important backers of the couple were
Andreas and Thomas Strüngmann, twin brothers and billionaire
investors who have poured more than 200 million euros, equivalent
to $241 million, in the couple's enterprises since 2001.
"Ugur is the visionary who shows us the future, and Özlem then
tells us how to get there," said Helmut Jeggle, BioNTech
supervisory board chairman and manager of the Strüngmann family
office. The brothers, he said, were happy to give the two
scientists broad strategic leeway.
In 2008, Drs. Sahin and Türeci founded BioNTech to expand their
research from antibody treatments into mRNA. Since Ganymed was sold
for $1.4 billion in 2016 and the couple reinvested the proceeds
into their new venture, BioNTech has been their sole focus.
All executive directors at BioNTech are scientists, including
the finance and sales chiefs. The CEO retains his professorship at
the local university, where he trains Ph.D. candidates, sometimes
with an eye on recruitment.
When talking about his work, Dr. Sahin, who wears a Turkish
amulet known as a nazar around his neck, often reaches for the
blackboard to sketch formulas.
The BioNTech team, half of them women, includes scientists with
60 nationalities, including authorities in the mRNA field such as
Katalin Kariko, a biochemistry professor at the University of
Pennsylvania Medical School.
"Most biotech CEOs are salesmen, but Ugur is a scientist who
convinced me because the science is good here," said Prof. Kariko,
who is Hungarian. "There is no blueprint for our products, no one
has ever done it before."
On Jan. 25, a Saturday, after reading a study he said convinced
him that the obscure disease in China would soon engulf the globe,
Dr. Sahin set to work on his computer, designing the template for
10 possible coronavirus vaccines, one of which would become
BNT162b2, the vaccine authorized in the U.K. on Wednesday.
Later that day, he told Mr. Jeggle that BioNTech would refocus
its work on combating a virus that didn't yet have a name and
hadn't yet been diagnosed in Europe.
"I was surprised, to say the least," said Mr. Jeggle, who has
been working with Dr. Sahin since 2001. "We didn't have much free
capital, and we were tied up with our cancer research."
Dr. Sahin cited the Hong Kong flu of 1968-69 that claimed as
many as four million lives. After two hours, Mr. Jeggle
The following Monday, Dr. Sahin reorganized his staff into
seven-day shifts, asked key workers to cancel their holidays and
stop using public transport. Lightspeed Project, as he dubbed the
effort, would develop a vaccine in months rather than years, as had
so far been the case.
In February, Dr. Sahin was observing the effect of the jab in a
microscope. He took a selfie with two employees present. "I think
this is the birth of our vaccine candidate," he declared.
BioNTech had been working with Pfizer to develop a flu vaccine
based on the mRNA technology. So when Dr. Sahin needed a partner to
organize clinical trials across continents, manufacture the product
globally and help distribute it in the U.S. and Europe, he knew
whom to turn to. In March, the two companies signed a cooperation
deal, and in April, the first human trials began.
Later, BioNTech acquired a U.S. company and a large
pharmaceutical factory in Germany to scale up production pending
authorization -- a high-risk approach should the shot fail.
Morgan Stanley estimated that the vaccine could bring Pfizer and
BioNTech more than $13 billion in revenue. Any proceeds will be
reinvested, Dr. Sahin said. His main focus hasn't changed: to bring
mRNA-based and other innovative cancer treatments, 11 of which are
in clinical trials, to market.
Many scientists are still skeptical this can be done. Thomas C.
Roberts, a senior postdoctoral scientist specializing in mRNA from
the University of Oxford, said the vaccine results were exciting
but the application of mRNA beyond the jab would face key
Back in Mainz, Dr. Sahin disagrees, saying the vaccine's
authorization would validate his technology and "usher in a whole
new category of medicines."
Write to Bojan Pancevski at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
December 02, 2020 05:44 ET (10:44 GMT)
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