Two Turks and a Greek Collaborate – And Save the World

By Shlomo Maital

Dr. Uğur Şahin and Dr. Özlem Türeci

  Every major nation in the world is feverishly working to develop a vaccine against COVID-19.  Billions of dollars have been spent, thousands enlisted, politics pollutes science —  and in the end, the world will be saved by two brilliant people whose families emigrated from Turkey to Germany, together with a Greek CEO.  Here is the story, based on David Gelles’ New York Times article.*

*David Gelles. They’re first in the face for a vaccine. NYT, Friday Nov. 13, 2020, p. 8

   On Monday Nov. 9, Pfizer announced that a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Dr. Ugur Sahin and Dr. Ozlem Tureci had been shown to be over 90% effective.  Predictably, Trump claimed falsely that the announcement had been purposely delayed to harm his re-election.  The announcement was made by Albert Bourla, Pfizer CEO, who is Greek.  What lovely irony that two Turks and a Greek combine to save the world!

    Who are Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci?

     Sahin, 55, was born in Iskendurun, Turkey.  His family moved to Cologne, Germany, when he was 4; his parents worked in a Ford car factory there.  He graduated from the Univ. of Cologne as a medical doctor and later, Ph.D., after researching immunotherapy for caner.   He met Dr. Tureci, 53,  early in his career; she hoped to become a nun, but ended up studying medicine; she was the daughter of a Turkish physician who emigrated to Germany from Istanbul.   

    In 2001 Sahin and Tureci founded Ganymet Pharmaceuticals to develop monoclonal antibodies to treat cancer.  [A monoclonal antibody is   made by cloning a unique white blood cell, that bind to an antigen, e.g., a virus, cancer cell or bacteria and keep it from making us ill]. They sold Ganymet for $1.4 billion in 2016.

      As billionaires, did they go off to bask on a beach in the Bahamas?

     Far from it.  They founded BioNTech, even before selling Ganymed, to use messenger RNA (mRNA) (see below) to treat cancer.  

     What insight did Dr. Sahin have two years ago?

     At a conference in Berlin, Sahin told a roomful of infectious disease experts, that his company BioNTech “might be able to use messenger RNA to create a vaccine in the event of a global pandemic.”  BioNTech began work on the vaccine in January, after Sahin read an article in a medical journal and saw how the novel coronavirus was about to spread worldwide.    Scientists at BioNTech cancelled vacations and went to work on what they called Project Lightspeed (Trump copied Warpspeed from them). 

     What is an mRNA vaccine?

     This is brand-new vaccine technology.  “To produce an mRNA vaccine, scientists produce a synthetic version of the mRNA (RNA, ribonucleic acid, is a molecule vital in genetic coding and decoding)  that a virus uses to build its infectious proteins. This mRNA is delivered into the human body, whose cells read it as instructions to build that viral protein, and therefore create some of the virus’s molecules themselves. These proteins are solitary, so they do not assemble to form a virus. The immune system then detects these viral proteins and starts to produce a defensive response to them.”  This is a relatively new technology for creating vaccines. No such vaccine existed before.

     What role does Pfizer play?

     BioNTech developed the vaccine.  But the process of clinical testing, passing regulation, and producing billions of doses, needed a Big Pharma company.  BioNTech has been collaborating with Pfizer since 2018.  Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla was born in Thessaloniki, Greece and has been with Pfizer since 1992.  In March BioNTech and Pfizer signed a collaborative agreement.

     Is BioNTech a major company?

     It is now!   Its market value has understandably soared, to over $21 billion, and it is based in Mainz, Germany, employing 1,323.  This makes Sahin and Tureci among Germany’s wealthiest persons.  However, they live in a modest apartment, with their teenage daughter, and bicycle to work.  They do not own a car.

      Will the BioNTech mRNA vaccine save the world?

      Maybe.  But a major problem will be transporting it.  It requires cooling to minus 70 degrees C.  Even major hospitals do not have storage facilities for a vaccine at that ultra-low temperature.  The vaccine will have to be shipped in dry ice (solid frozen CO2), which is minus 78.5 degrees C.