- BBC World News
The positive results publicized by Pfizer in the vaccine for covid-19 that BioNTech develops together are an unexpected success for a couple of children of Turkish immigrants in Germany.
From humble roots, the son of a Turkish immigrant who worked at a Ford factory in Cologne would, years later, become the CEO of BioNTech. Now 55 years old, Ugur Sahin He is among the 100 richest Germans, along with his wife and colleague Öezlem Türeci, 53-year-old daughter of a Turkish doctor.
“Despite his accomplishments, he has never stopped being incredibly humble and kind,” said Matthias Kromayer, a board member of venture capital firm MIG AG, whose funds have been funding BioNTech since its founding in 2008.
According to Kromayer, Sahin often attends business meetings with jeans, backpack and a bicycle helmet under his arm.
In one year, the market value of the company on the Nasdaq Technology Company Exchange went from US $ 4.600 million at US $ 21.000 millions thanks to the important role of the company in research for mass immunization against coronavirus. To serve as a benchmark, suffice it to say that BioNTech’s current market value is four times that of the German airline Lufthansa.
With extensive German funding, Pfizer and BioNTech are the first manufacturers to release successful data from a large-scale clinical trial of a pandemic vaccine.
As revealed by the companies this Monday, November 9, the vaccine to combat the coronavirus achieved immunization in 9 out of 10 people and the US authorities may authorize its emergency use later this year.
For the Berlin newspaper Daily mirror, the success of the couple It was a “soul balm” for Germans with Turkish roots after decades of being stereotyped in Germany as “inexperienced greengrocers”.
Germany has a large community of Turkish origin, but these immigrants or descendants are often victims of prejudice.
Sahin and Türeci are the children of workers who emigrated to Germany as part of the first generation of Turkish immigrants invited by the country, in a program known as Gastarbeiter.
“Germany has long struggled with the question of how open its immigration policy should be and the postwar ‘guest worker’ program has always been questioned,” said Christian Odandahl, chief economist at the Center for European Reform, in a Twitter post.
“Ugur Sahin’s father was one of those guest workers who came to work at the Ford factory in Cologne and now his son could be the person who ended the epidemic that swept the world,” he added.
Pursuing his childhood dream of becoming a doctor, Ugur Sahin graduated in 1990 and worked in university hospitals in Cologne and in the university city of Homburg in southwestern Germany, where he met Türeci early in his career. academic.
Medical research and oncology have become a common passion.
Türeci, the daughter of a Turkish doctor who had emigrated to Germany before her birth, said in an interview with local media that, even on their wedding day, they both found time to work in the laboratory.
Together, they specialized in the study of the immune system as a potential ally in the fight against cancer and they tried to deal with the unique genetic makeup of each tumor.
Life as entrepreneurs began in 2001, when they created Ganymed Pharmaceuticals to develop antibodies against cancer but Sahin, who has been a professor at the University of Mainz since 2014, never abandoned academic research and teaching.
The couple, who now have a teenage daughter, received funding from MIG AG, as well as Thomas and Andreas Struengmann, who sold their generic drug company Hexal to Novartis in 2005.
The Sahin and Türeci venture ended up being sold to the Japanese company Astellas in 2016 for almost US $ 1.4 billion. At the time, the team behind Ganymed was already busy building BioNTech, founded in 2008, in search of a much broader range of cancer immunotherapy tools.
This included mRNA, a versatile messenger substance that is used to send genetic instructions to cells. In this approach, in general, the immune system detects cancer cells as a virus that enters the body and tries to kill them.
And with the mRNA method, that allows more vaccines to be produced faster compared to traditional methods For immunization, the company plans to produce more than 100 million doses of vaccines by the end of the year.
Sahin is currently the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of BioNTech and Türeci, the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) of the company.
“An ideal team”
For Kromayer, from MIG, Sahin and Türeci form an “ideal team”, since they have reconciled their aspirations with the limits of reality.
The BioNTech story took a turn when Sahin found a scientific paper in January 2020 about a new coronavirus outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan. At that time, he realized how close the gap was between mRNA anticancer drugs and mRNA-based viral vaccines.
This unprecedented type of immunization method carries with it a piece of genetically modified material in the laboratory and provides instructions for the cells in our bodies to make viral proteins. From there, the immune system recognizes the threat and generates a response that actually protects the body from disease.
BioNTech quickly assigned about 500 employees to design various possible compounds at “speed of light.” The initiative attracted US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and Chinese pharmaceutical company Fosun as partners shortly thereafter, in March.
“Our new task is to defeat this virus. That is a humanitarian duty”, Sahin told his team, according to the British newspaper The Telegraph.
Matthias Theobald, a professor of oncology at the University of Mainz who has worked with Sahin for 20 years, said that his tendency to euphemism hides a relentless ambition to transform medicine, exemplified in the leap of faith he made to dedicate himself to the search for a vaccine against covid-19.
“He is a very modest and humble person. Appearances mean little to him. But he wants to create the structures that allow him to realize his dreams and that is where the aspirations are far from modest,” said Theobald.
On Monday, Sahin told Reuters that at the beginning of the year he did not know how difficult it would be to try to obtain a vaccine against covid-19.
What is known about the BioNTech / Pfizer vaccine?
Pfizer and BioNTech laboratories announced that their candidate for the covid-19 vaccine achieved an efficacy rate greater than 90% in a preliminary analysis of phase 3 clinical trials, the last step before approval by regulatory agencies.
BNT162b2 (provisional name) is studied in 43,538 individuals spread over six countries (South Africa, Germany, Argentina, Brazil, the United States and Turkey).
Half of the people receive the doses, while the other part takes a placebo, a substance that has no effect on the body.
Preliminary data showed that the vaccinated participants were less infected with the coronavirus than the other group of volunteers.
Monday’s announcement was based on data from 94 infected volunteers and revealed that the effectiveness was greater than 90%. Based on the information disclosed, no adverse events or other concerns were observed at this stage.
But the companies hope to reach 164 events (in other words, 164 participants diagnosed with covid-19) to complete this preliminary analysis.
At the same time, the doctors express concerns about logistical issues arising from the specificities of the vaccine, such as the need to administer more than one dose in a short time and to keep it stored at very low temperatures, which can create difficulties in places with fewer resources and capacities.
On the other hand, if all goes well in the next steps, BNT162b2 could represent a revolution in medicine: it would be the first approved RNA-based vaccine in history.
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