August 1, 2021

Scientists and superstars, the founders of BioNTech in full light

The hope of a vaccine against Covid-19 propelled the founders of the German laboratory BioNTech towards the light, making their fate of children of Turkish immigrants look like a success story, despite the couple’s reserve of researchers.

In interview requests from Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci, respectively CEO and Medical Director of BioNTech, it is advisable to conduct the interview on “the history of the company” rather than on private matters.

Little talk with the media since the spectacular announcement of the “90%” effectiveness of their vaccine candidate, the duo has always been discreet about his personal trajectory: he, the son of a worker in the automotive industry, arrived from Turkey at the age of 4; she, the daughter of a doctor who left Istanbul for northern Germany.

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But the press was not mistaken, as happy with the vaccine promises as with the beautiful story that inspires dazzled titles: they are the “Dream team”, “the Curies of the Covid”, past “heroes”. ‘children of immigrant workers to save the world’ and ‘billionaires’.

The first patient enrolled in Pfizer’s COVID vaccine clinical trial at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore, May 4, 2020. (Courtesy: University of Maryland School of Medicine via AP, File)

Described as hard-working and passionate workers, those concerned seem to be wary of superlatives or the temptation to set up their course as a model of integration.

“I’m not sure I really want this,” Ugur Sahin said cautiously in an interview with Guardian Friday.

“As a society we have to ask ourselves how to give everyone a chance to contribute to this society. I am an accidental example of an immigrant. I could have been German as well as Spanish ”.

Integral

Unknown to the general public, the couple was not in the scientific community where he has been for many years among the figures for research against cancer, whose treatments he has sworn to “revolutionize”.

Specializing in molecular medicine and immunology, Ugur Sahin, 55, first trained in Cologne (west), where his father worked in the Ford factories, then at the Hombourg University Hospital (southern Germany ) where her path crossed that of Özlem Türeci, her two-year-old younger.

Uğur Şahin (Kuebi; Armin Kübelbeck; Wikipédia)

The latter described in an interview her childhood closely linked to the medical practice “which was in the middle of the family home”, to the point that she “never imagined” doing any other profession than a doctor.

None of them saw themselves becoming a business leader, but their lines of research seemed “too daring” to find relays in the industrial sector, which convinced them to take the plunge.

In 2001, they founded their first biotechnology company (Ganymed Pharmaceutical), which was sold in 2016. In the meantime, their second company, BioNTech, was founded in 2008, always with the aim of developing a new generation of individual therapies for patients. with cancer.

With around 1,500 employees today, it is supported by major private investors.

Two of them, Thomas Strüngmann and Michael Motschmann, described the couple this week as “genuine personalities, of great integrity, hardworking and extraordinarily intelligent”.

” Speed ​​of light “

In the premises of BioNTech, located “Rue de la mine d’or” in Mainz (west), we have been working since the beginning on the new technology known as messenger RNA, which consists of injecting strands of genetic instructions for telling cells how to defend themselves against disease.

No vaccine based on this innovation has yet been put on the market.

Putting their work on cancer in parentheses, BioNTech teams are, as of January, focusing all their efforts on research against the new coronavirus. Project name: “Speed ​​of light”.

After identifying promising vaccine formulas, the company entered into a partnership with the American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in March, with a view to the testing and marketing phases.

The results published on Monday make the BioNTech project the most advanced on the road to protection against Covid-19. Global stock markets soared, politicians rejoiced, the scientific community applauded.

Informed of the results the night before, Ugur Sahin had felt liberated from a “great weight”, he told the Guardian. The couple then simply “made cups of tea.”