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Coronavirus

How BioNTech's husband-and-wife team developed Pfizer's vaccine

A Lancet article about a mysterious virus in Wuhan in January inspired the couple

Ugur Sahin, left, and his wife Ozlem Tureci, the co-founders of German biotech firm BioNTech that developed a coronavirus vaccine for Pfizer. (Source photos by Reuters and courtesy of BioNTech)

TOKYO -- When Ugur Sahin, co-founder of the German biotech company BioNTech, first picked up an article published in January in the Lancet medical journal about a mysterious virus in Wuhan, he told his wife and business partner Ozlem Tureci that he expected it to spread to Germany by April.

By March, schools and kindergartens in most German states had been shut to slow the coronavirus spread.

This week, BioNTech and its collaborator, U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, announced that the vaccine developed by Sahin and his team was well tolerated in final-phase human trials, and is more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 -- the disease caused by the coronavirus that has killed 1.2 million people around the world.

While global stocks soared on Monday when news of the clinical trial results broke, the vaccine still needs regulatory approval and faces the issue of safe transportation.

Presenting the latest findings and business projections in a conference call with analysts on Tuesday, Sahin spoke of "a turning point and milestone, both for our company and for innovation in science" and "good news for humanity."

Some unique factors played a part in achieving this breakthrough.

Sahin, 55, and Tureci, 53, had been researching for nearly 20 years the possibility of using modified genetic code, or messenger RNA (mRNA), to trick the body into developing cancer-fighting antibodies.

Seeing the coronavirus spread fast in China at the beginning of January, Sahin believed his company would be able to direct their research from anticancer m-RNA drugs to be among the first to come up with a mRNA-based viral vaccine.

"We felt we had an obligation to do something," he said in an interview when explaining the reason behind the decision to start what he called Project Lightspeed.

The vaccine they developed needed to be clinically tested on humans and approved by regulators like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the European Medicines Agency before being marketed. For distribution and marketing, the couple teamed up with Pfizer, whom they had previously worked together on a flu vaccine, and Fosun, the Chinese pharmaceutical conglomerate that famously donated N95 masks, protective suits, and other medical supplies to Italy when the country notoriously became the "Wuhan of Europe" in March.

Clinical trials to determine the vaccine's dosage and safety started simultaneously in May in the University of Maryland in the U.S. and Ankara University Ibni Sina Hospital in Turkey, as well as in South America and Europe. They were expanded to include China in July.

In an interview with Turkish news agency DHA in May, Sahin talked of his hectic schedule at the height of the pandemic leading up to the breakthrough this week: "I was working from my home office, making calls to coordinate with China in the morning and switching to Pfizer (in the U.S.) in the afternoon."

Among all their collaborators, one person dear to Sahin's and Tureci's heart is Albert Bourla, the 58-year-old Greek CEO of Pfizer.

As the three scientists raced to develop a viable vaccine to herald the beginning of the end of the COVID era, they ignored the antagonism between their native countries and instead developed a special relationship over their shared experiences as immigrants.

Sahin was born in a modest one-bedroom house in Iskenderun, a town in southern Turkey. Like many young Turkish couples falling into economic hardship in the 1960s, his parents emigrated to Western Germany as a gastarbeiter (guest worker) when he was 4. His father, Ihsan Sahin, worked at the Ford car factory in Cologne.

Inspired by a program he saw on German TV called "Immortality is Fatal," Sahin went on to study medicine and earned a doctorate on immunotherapy from the University of Cologne. This week, their next-door neighbor in Iskenderun, 81-year-old Sami Uygur, rejoiced upon hearing the news of one of their own "saving the world."

Tureci, the chief medical officer of BioNTech, was born a second-generation Turkish German and comes from a family of physicians. "I used to play among patients," she said in an interview of her time spent in his father's surgery. In 2008, she and her husband founded BioNTech with Austrian oncologist, Christoph Huber.

Pfizer's Bourla is from Thessaloniki, Greece's second largest city and the birthplace of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. He studied at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki and graduated in veterinary medicine before emigrating with his wife to the U.S. when he was 34.

Sahin speaks of Bourla as a friend rather than a business partner.

"It was very personal from the very beginning," said Sahin in a recent interview, mentioning the shared history of their native countries.

Sahin and Tureci are described as very modest people who are not at all interested in fortune. The first company they founded in 2001 was named Ganymed, which comes from the Turkish word ganimet, meaning "an unexpected, godsend reward."

The trust among these three collaborators is so strong that Sahin is said to have not yet finalized the financial details of the agreement between his company and Pfizer.

Meanwhile, with a current market value of $21 billion, BioNTech, which is located on a street in Mainz ironically called An der Goldgrube ("At the Goldmine"), is now more valuable than Deutsche Bank and Lufthansa.

Looking forward, Sahin says the next important challenge before the vaccine hits the market is to get regulatory approval.

Then there is the issue of safe transportation. Unlike regular vaccines, genetically modified vaccines like BioNTech's need to be handled at very low temperatures.

"They will be transported to smaller vaccination centers in regular fridges where they will be kept at 5 degrees and will need to be administered in five days," Sahin said in an interview with Turkey's DHA. "In the first few months, people will get vaccinated by appointment [due to pandemic rules to avoid spread of the coronavirus]. Subsequently, we will work on more stable formulations, which will allow preservation for a longer time in normal fridges."

Who gets the vaccine first is another matter.

BioNTech has recently opened a production facility in Marburg, Germany. Once the vaccine is approved, Sahin forecasts distribution of 300 million doses to Europe and the U.S. in the first half of 2021, culminating in 1.5 billion doses for the world in a year. BioNTech also made a deal to provide 120 million doses to Japan. For the vaccine to be effective, two doses need to be administered, with the second coming 28 days after the first.

Referring to the World Health Organization's COVAX vaccine program, Sahin said, "It's important for the vaccine to be accessible by poor countries, not just rich ones... And I believe the whole world will have access to it."

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