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BioNTech founders receive one of Germany's highest honors

February 26, 2021

Germany's President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will award COVID vaccine developers Özlem Türeci and Ugur Sahin with the Order of Merit for contributing to the "containment of the coronavirus pandemic."

Ugur Sahin und seine Frau Özlem Türeci.
More than 1,300 people from over 60 countries currently work at BioNTechImage: Stefan F. Sämmer/imago images

The founders of BioNTech, Özlem Türeci and Ugur Sahin, will receive the Knight Commander's Cross of the Federal Order of Merit for developing a coronavirus vaccine, Germany's presidential office announced on Friday. 

It will be the first Order of Merit German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier awards in person this year.

Steinmeier congratulated the couple, saying that they had made a decisive contribution "to the containment of the coronavirus pandemic," the president wrote on Facebook. 

Steinmeier and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are set to attend the award ceremony in Bellevue Palace on March 19.

What is the history of BioNTech?

The husband and wife team started the small biotech firm in the German city of Mainz in 2008.

Together with the American pharmaceutical company, Pfizer Inc, their COVID vaccine was the first authorized for use by the European Union last December. 

Türeci is the firm's chief medical officer and a leading cancer researcher and Sahin is the company's chief executive.  

"We were only able to do this because we have a fantastic team. A team of international scientists and staff from 60 different countries who have been working with us for years on this topic [mRNA research]," Sahin previously said. 

'Likelihood is high' vaccine will work against new variant

How did BioNTech develop a vaccine?

The couple faced several challenges in getting the mRNA technology behind the vaccine to be recognized while they were racing the pandemic, but they did not give up. 

Traditionally, scientists have developed vaccines through a weakened or dead version of a virus to encourage immune systems to fight the disease.  

But Sahin and Türeci’s background in mRNA research allowed them to develop the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine.  

How do vaccines work?

The approach takes a small part of the virus' genetic information to spark an immune response through producing protein directly in the cell.

fb/rt (AFP, dpa, KNA)