July 31, 2021

Meet the billionaire couple who helped design Pfizer’s vaccine

Pfizer made history with the results of its Covid-19 vaccine, now in the final stages of development. The vaccine, designed with German partner BioNTech, is more than 90% effective, according to initial data from its clinical trials. It is the fastest vaccine ever developed and its effectiveness is well above the 70 or 80% that virologists were hoping for. Good news for the future of the pandemic – and for the German couple behind it.

BioNTech CEO Dr Ugur Sahin co-founded the company with his wife Dr Özlem Türeci, who is the chief medical officer. The couple crossed the billion euro threshold last June, when BioNTech shares soared after the announcement of its partnership with Pfizer. A second increase in their shares after the first results of clinical trials increased their joint fortune, which could amount to nearly $ 4 billion.

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“This could be the start of the end of the Covid era,” Dr Sahin told The New York Times.

Here is how the couple of vaccine manufacturers met, and how they have marked modern medicine.

According to the New York Times, Ugur Sahin immigrated from Turkey at the age of 4 and Özlem Türeci was born in Germany. The CEO of BioNTech is from Iskenderun, a town near the Syrian border, and his wife’s father is from Istanbul. The 50-year-old described herself as a “Prussian Turk” to the Guardian, citing her admiration for certain aspects of German culture.

They came to medicine through different routes: Dr Sahin was the son of a car factory worker, he was introduced to medicine through science books. Dr Türeci’s father was a surgeon, and she grew up watching him operate on patients.

The couple met while working at a teaching hospital in southwestern Germany.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn visits the virology department of the Saar University Hospital. Oliver Dietze/picture alliance via Getty Images

Ugur Sahin worked in hospitals in Cologne, according to Reuters. He obtained his doctorate in medicine from the city university in 1990. His partner obtained her doctorate in medicine from the medical faculty of the University of Saarland.

The duo co-founded their first pharmaceutical company in 2001. They married the following year.

The Astellas Pharma brand photographed at the headquarters of the Japanese laboratory in Tokyo. Reuters

Since 2000 Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci have jointly led a research group at the University of Mainz. In 2001, they founded the company Ganymed Pharmaceuticals, which investigated the role of antibodies in the treatment of cancer. According to the American magazine Forbes, Ganymed received the support of the billionaire twins Thomas and Andreas Strüngmann. The company was acquired by Astellas Pharma, a Japanese pharmaceutical group, for approximately $ 1.4 billion in 2016.

“I understood that what we could offer to cancer patients in hospitals was not much, and that we could do a lot more by bringing new discoveries”, Dr Türeci told Clara Rodríguez Fernández , from LABIOTECH, in an interview given in 2017.

According to the Times, the duo even went to the lab on their wedding morning in 2002, took time off to attend the ceremony, and then returned to work later that day.

They then co-founded BioNTech in 2008, with Ugur Sahin as CEO.

Ugur Sahin, co-founder of BioNTech during his interview in Marburg, Germany. Fabian Bimmer/Reuters

Özlem Türeci said in 2017 that her husband took on the role of CEO of BioNTech in 2008; she remained at the head of Ganymed. Prior to the acquisition of the company, she also worked as a scientific advisor for BioNTech.

“In 2008, we recognized that another platform had reached a point of maturity from which to accelerate its evolution to individualized vaccines, and BioNTech was founded,” Dr Türeci told LABIOTECH.

BioNTech, which set itself the goal of using immunotherapy in cancer vaccines, was also supported by the Strüngmann twins. Özlem Türeci became its chief medical officer in 2018.

BioNTech and Ugur Sahin began to focus on coronavirus research in January. Pfizer partnered with them in March.

A caregiver injects Pfizer’s vaccine into a patient in Turkey in October. Dogukan Keskinkilic/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

According to the Times, Ugur Sahin read an article in The Lancet in January about the Wuhan-born Covid-19 epidemic. He spotted the potential dangers of the virus and, according to Reuters, determined how BioNTech’s work on Messenger Ribonucleic Acid (MNA, copy of a portion of DNA) could be applicable to a vaccine.

It was then that the company brought in 500 people to begin work on potential compounds to complete the “Project Lightspeed”.

According to Business Insider reporter Andrew Dunn, BioNTech had already worked on a possible flu vaccine with Pfizer in 2018. As Dr Sahin began to launch his Coronavirus scans, he called Kathrin Jansen, head of research on Pfizer vaccines in February. BioNTech partnered with Pfizer in March, and began studying the effects of a vaccine on humans in late April.

In September, the German weekly Welt am Sonntag ranked the duo among the 100 richest Germans – they are in 85th place. On Friday, BioNTech’s bourisère capitalization reached $ 25 billion. A year ago it was just under $ 3.4 billion.

Ugur Sahin would not verify his company’s share price.

The headquarters of BioNTech, a pharmaceutical laboratory in Mainz, Germany. Reuters

Ugur Sahin is, in the eyes of his colleagues, the man who continues to cycle to work, often wearing a helmet and a backpack. He still teaches at the Mainz University Medical Center, where he has been teaching since 2014. In addition to her duties at BioNTech, Dr Sahin’s wife is president of the Association for Cancer Immunotherapy.

As BioNTech shares take off and vaccine production accelerates, investors told The Times the couple are driven by advances in medicine, not money.

The New York Times added that after seeing the efficacy data for their vaccine, the couple celebrated the event by brewing Turkish tea.

Contacted by Business Insider, the couple have not given a response yet.

Version originale : Juliana Kaplan/Business Insider

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