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German researchers advance coronavirus vaccine

Insa Wrede
November 9, 2020

Biontech and Pfizer have announced that they are on the brink of emergency-use approval for a coronavirus vaccine. The scientists responsible, Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci, are from Germany.

Ugur Sahin, Özlem Türeci
Image: Stefan F. Sämmer/imago images

"Lightspeed" is the name of the project that Germany's BioNTech firm launched in mid-January to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus. It has been moving at approximately that speed since. Vaccines usually takes eight to 10 years to develop, but it might only take the researchers in the German city of Mainz about a year to get theirs approved in the United States.  

In mid-November BioNTech and its US partner, Pfizer, plan to apply for emergency-use approval in the US. The data released by the pharma companies on Monday indicate that the vaccine is 90% effective in creating immunity to the coronavirus. If these results stand, this would put the companies well ahead in the race for a vaccine. 

The European Medicines Agency initiated the approval process for the coronavirus vaccine from BioNTech and Pfizer in early October. The vaccine is currently being tested in a study involving tens of thousands of participants, according to the EMA. In order to speed up the process, interim results are constantly reviewed until there are sufficient findings to make a decision on approval. 

'Internal police force' 

Back in January, when the coronavirus was raging in China and hardly anyone in Germany was seriously worried about a pandemic, BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin and chief medical officer Özlem Türeci, who are married, focused their research on a vaccine against the coronavirus. By spring, they had launched phase 1/2 trials. 

Read more: Up to 40% of German population is at 'high risk' for complications of COVID-19

Prior to that, the physician-researchers were busy focusing on treatments for cancer. The genetic mutation of cells is never exactly the same in any two cancer patients, so they operated on the theory that uniform treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation are less effective. The BioNTech approach is that patients need treatment tailored to their unique needs. 

Sahin and Türeci use the human body's ability to defend itself from bacteria and viruses. They aim to develop an immunotherapy that stimulates the self-healing mechanisms and triggers the body's own "internal police force" to render malignant tumors harmless.  

A lifelong passion  

Born in Turkey, Sahin was 4 when he and his mother moved to Cologne to join his father, who worked for the Ford company. After graduating from high school, he studied medicine at the University of Cologne. "I was interested in immunotherapy," said Sahin, who is 54. He added that he is interested in how the immune system works and how it can be trained to identify and attack cancer cells.

Read more: Global markets get coronavirus vaccine boost

Sahin was already working in a lab when he was 20. "We had lectures all day until 4 p.m.," Sahin said, "and while my fellow students would go home, I went to the lab to work, usually until 9 or 10 p.m., sometimes until 4 in the morning." When he was done, he would ride home on his bike. 

In 1992, Sahin finished medical school and worked as a doctor for internal medicine and hematology and oncology at the University of Cologne for several years before transferring to the Saarland University Medical Center. There, he met Türeci, a medical student and the daughter of a doctor who had come to Germany from Istanbul.

Türeci's patient-centered care 

A lecturer at the University of Mainz, Türeci is considered a pioneer in cancer immunotherapy. "Influenced by my father, who worked as a doctor, I could not imagine any other profession even when I was a young girl," Türeci told the online website wissenschaftsjahr.de. "My father's practice was in the family home. When we were kids we would play among the patients. There was no strict separation between work and life in our home."

Read more: The race to save Germany from the coronavirus 

Above all, it was her family that shaped her, she told innovationsland-deutschland.de, a site run by the Education and Research Ministry. "My father was a physician very much attuned to the patients," she said. That attitude rubbed off on her in her own work as a doctor, she said: Patient-centered care is what matters to her. Like her father, she wanted to help people. First she thought of becoming a nun, she told the German magazine Impulse in 2011, but then she decided to go into medicine. 

By the time Türeci and Sahin married in 2002, he was already working at the University Medical Center Mainz. Even on their wedding day, Sahin spent some time in the lab — both before the couple went to the registry office and again afterward. 

Founding BioNTech 

In 2001, the couple launched the Ganymed Pharmaceuticals biopharmaceutical company to develop immunotherapeutic cancer drugs. They sold the firm in 2016 for  €422 million. In 2008, Sahin and Türeci founded BioNTech, a company that for the most part develops technologies and drugs for individualized cancer immunotherapies — none of which has yet made it to the approval stage.

Read more: How a coronavirus vaccine would likely get from the lab to your veins

Sahin still rides his bike to teach at the University of Mainz. Türeci also continues to teach at the university. 

"Rarely have I met anyone as smart as Mr. Sahin, he is always one step ahead of people," Andreas Kuhn, BioNTech's senior vice president of RNA biochemistry and manufacturing, said at the 2019 Mustafa Award ceremony. "If you come up with a new idea, he has already reached that stage and anticipated it."  

Read more: Leipzig protest on pandemic measures triggers heated debate on German policing

"Mr. Sahin inspired me from the very beginning," Kuhn said. "I think it is one of his strengths that he can get people excited about the cause." Kuhn said Sahin's scientific arguments are convincing and his enthusiasm for his work is inspiring.  

More than 1,300 people from over 60 countries currently work at BioNTech, and more than half of them are women. In October, the German biotech firm debuted on the US's Nasdaq exchange for technology stocks. The company has grown steadily through acquisitions. 

Türeci told innovationsland-deutschland.de that she accepts those things she cannot change, but she also tries to "concentrate with determination and courage on things that are within our sphere of influence, which is often greater than you first think." Determination and courage are traits Sahin and Türeci have certainly shown during the pandemic.

To be in a position to quickly provide vaccine doses for commercial distribution in case of a possible approval of the BNT162 vaccine candidate, they started to invest massively in the expansion of their production capacity, according to the annual report that also said some of the production lines at the company sites in Idar-Oberstein and Mainz run around the clock. In order to stay within the timeline, the company had the objective from the start to take important steps side by side, Sahin said in an interview with Germany's ZDF broadcaster.

Years of research are paying off for Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci in oither ways. Sahin holds 18% of BioNTech shares and, with the company's success, suddenly finds himself among the 100 richest Germans — at least on paper. 

This article was adapted from German by Dagmar Breitenbach.