Meet the couple behind Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine

Meet the couple behind Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine

By Tracy Cabrera

FOLLOWING an announcement by American multinational pharmaceutical Pfizer Corporation that its Covid-19 vaccine is more than 90 percent effective, scientists are advising caution because Pfizer didn’t actually provide details on their vaccine’s safety profile, such as the frequency and severity of typical side effects.

However, the drug firm’s chief-executive-officer Albert Bourla said in a statement that they would share additional efficacy and safety data “in the coming weeks.”

The US$220 billion pharmaceutical company disclosed that a two-dose regimen of their vaccine shot was found to be up to 92 percent effective in preventing Covid-19 infections, based on 94 cases of the disease observed in the large-scale trial.

But even with the good news, there are caveats and unanswered questions for Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech.

Longtime biotech executive and infectious-disease expert William Haseltine expressed concern over Pfizer’s announcement of success, adding he wanted to see the underlying data to support the efficacy claim.

Haseltine has previously criticized other front-runners in the race for a coronavirus vaccine, namely Moderna, for touting study results in news releases before releasing detailed data. With Pfizer’s announcement, however, Haseltine said there wasn’t any data in the release.

The analysis was based on 94 cases of Covid-19 among study participants, but Pfizer didn’t share an exact breakdown of how many got sick from getting Pfizer’s vaccine versus the placebo. The release also didn’t specify how many of the cases were severe or mild or if different age groups had varying levels of protection.

Despite this, though, progress on the Covid-19 vaccine has propelled the modest husband-and-wife team behind German firm BioNTech into the global limelight, with attention inevitably focusing on their background as the children of Turkish immigrants.

Ugur Sahin and his wife Ozlem Tureci founded BioNTech in the western German city of Mainz in 2008 and together with US giant Pfizer are developing the leading candidate in the worldwide chase for a vaccine.

The announcement on that their vaccine was more than 90 percent effective in trials led news bulletins around the world and sent stock markets and hopes soaring.

BioNTech is now worth US$25.8 billion (21.8 billion euros), more than Germany’s largest lender Deutsche Bank.

According to available information, BioNTech’s chief executive Sahin came to the country when he was just four years old and his father got a job at a Ford plant in Cologne as a member of the Gastarbeiter, or guest worker generation of migrant workers, many of whom ended up staying in Germany.

On the other hand, Sahin’s wife Tureci, who is BioNTech’s chief medical officer, is the daughter of a Turkish doctor who emigrated from Istanbul.

Described as hard-working and passionate, the couple appears to be wary of superlatives or the temptation to set up their journey as a model of successful integration.

“I am not sure I really want that,” Sahin said in an interview by the British newspaper The Guardian.

“As a society we have to ask ourselves how we can give everyone a chance to contribute to society. I am an accidental example of someone with a migration background. I could have equally been German or Spanish,” he pointed out.

Although the general public has only now discovered them, the husband-and-wife team has long been known in the scientific community as leading figures in cancer research, with the self-declared goal of ‘revolutionizing’ cancer medicine.

Specializing in molecular medicine and immunology, Sahin, 55, first trained at the University of Cologne and then at Saarland University Hospital, where he crossed paths with medical student Tureci.

They married in 2002, even returning to the lab on the day of their wedding, and have a daughter.

Tureci has described her childhood as closely linked to medicine. “My father’s practice was in the family home,” she once told a German science website, adding that she “could not imagine” any other job than that of a doctor.

Neither saw themselves managing a company, but their lines of research seemed ‘too daring’ for the pharmaceutical industry to take notice, she told the Tagesspiegel daily.

They founded their first biotechnology company, Ganymed, in 2001, selling it in 2016, while their second, BioNTech, developed a new generation of individual therapies for cancer patients—based on the same technology now used in their coronavirus vaccine.

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

Two of them, Thomas Struengmann and Michael Motschmann, described the couple this week as “simply authentic people, with great integrity, hardworking and exceptionally intelligent.”

At BioNTech’s headquarters in Mainz, on a street with the auspicious name An der Goldgrube (translated as ‘At the Goldmine’), scientists work on a novel technology known as messenger ribonucleic acid (RNA), which involves injecting strands of genes into the body that dictate to cells the defense mechanism to be manufactured against a disease.

BioNTech teams have since January put their work on cancer on hold, focusing their efforts on the fight against Covid-19, calling it project ‘Speed of Light’.

No vaccine based on this technology has yet been brought to market.

Having identified promising vaccine blueprints, the company formed a partnership in March with American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.

With their vaccine breakthrough, Sahin and Tureci have made it into the top 100 of Germany’s richest people.

But when the couple learned of the encouraging results of their late-stage vaccine trial, they told The Guardian of their relief and how they “celebrated a little,” before settling down to “cups of tea.”

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