Scientists behind the new COVID vaccine are Turkish-German

Pic: biontech.de

The scientists behind the new coronavirus vaccine are a Turkish-German couple.

The Pfizer vaccine is said to be 90% effective against COVID-19 has been heralded as a turning point in the global fight against the virus.

But while the vaccine has been bankrolled by the American pharmaceutical giant, the science itself is the work of BioNTech, a German company founded by married couple and dedicated physicians Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci.

According to Sky News, scientists and entrepreneurs Professor Sahin, 55, and Dr Tureci, 53, are now among the 100 richest Germans, with the value of their company BioNTech soaring to £16bn in the wake of the vaccine breakthrough.

Chief executive officer of BioNTech, Mr Sahin was born in the Turkish city of Iskenderun, moving to West Germany at four years old. His father was a gastarbeiter, a migrant worker at a Ford factory in Cologne.

Dr Tureci, who is the company’s chief medical officer, was born in Germany and is the daughter of a Turkish physician who migrated to the country from Istanbul.

The pair had a passion for research and oncology which they took forward into their first company Ganymed Pharmaceuticals which they set up in 2001.

They sold this business in 2016 £1bn. By then, they were already busy building BioNTech, founded in 2008, to pursue a much broader range of cancer immunotherapy tools.

In January, Professor Sahin came across a scientific paper on a new coronavirus outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan. 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 drug maker Fosun as partners in March.

Matthias Theobald, a fellow oncology professor at Mainz University, where Professor Sahin still teaches, said: “He is a very modest and humble person. Appearances mean little to him.

“But he wants to create the structures that allow him to realise his visions and that’s where is aspirations are far from modest.”

Speaking about Mr Sahin and Dr Tureci he said: “They’re proud of course. They’re celebrities in a scientific way but they’re very humble, they always have been.”

Sean Marett, chief commercial officer of BioNTech called Mr Sahin a “visionary”. “He can see the way things are going, sometimes before other people can.”

Matthias Kromayer, a board member of venture capital firm MIG AG, whose funds have backed BioNTech, added: “Despite his achievements, he never changed from being incredibly humble and personable.”

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