Archimedes had his bathtub, Isaac Newton an apple tree. For Dr Ugur Sahin and his wife Dr Ozlem Türeci, it was a breakfast-table conversation about a mysterious virus spreading from the Chinese city of Wuhan. The conversation sparked one of the greatest scientific advances in ages—the Covid-19 vaccine invented by the couple's firm BioNTech. It has been hailed in some quarters as the most significant medical invention since Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin in 1928.
In early December, as Britain approved emergency use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, Sahin was at the couple's modest apartment in Mainz, Germany, where he has worked for much of the pandemic. Next to his desk are a couple of pot plants and in the neighbouring room the spinning bike on which he grinds out a few miles when he needs to clear his head. The occasional car drones along the street several floors below. Nobody looking up would guess that this is the home of the couple who might have just saved the world.
Sahin is quick to dismiss such accolades (he and his wife have also been described as the most celebrated couple in science since Marie and Pierre Curie and are tipped for a Nobel Prize). Instead, he stresses that the development of the vaccine was the collective endeavour of a “world-class research group” at BioNTech. The biotechnology company, which the couple founded in 2008, is now worth billions. “Of course, this feels fantastic,” the 55-year-old grins as we speak via video call.
The vaccine poses a unique logistical challenge, in that it requires transportation at a temperature of -70 degrees Celsius. But, Sahin insists that with proper planning there should be no difficulty. “That should not be a challenge if everyone really understands the transportation conditions and if the logistical framework is built to deal with that,” he says, pointing out that once it has been transported in a deep freeze the vaccine is stable for five days, refrigerated between 2 degrees Celsius and 8 degrees Celsius.
Sahin is also calling for the establishment of expert groups to “understand all the constraints” around the vaccine's use. “We will continue to support colleagues in the UK to ensure they do not restrict themselves too much,” he says. “If you misunderstand certain requirements you might think this is not possible, even though there is a solution available.” Britain ordered 40 million doses of the vaccine, enough to inoculate 20 million people with two doses, dispensed 21 days apart.
Following the breakfast-table chat with his wife, back in January, Sahin set to work on his computer, designing the template for 10 possible Covid-19 vaccines. The couple created a project nicknamed "Light Speed" and linked up with the US pharmaceutical company Pfizer. It has taken just 10 months for the vaccine to be developed and granted emergency use authorisation—beating the previous record by more than three years.
At the most basic level, the vaccine works by instructing the body's cells to produce certain proteins, which then create an antibody response. The mRNA (messenger RNA) technology was originally developed to fight cancer and Sahin believes that we will see a revolution in how we tackle cancer in the next 20 years. He thinks the answer lies in developing personalised treatment, which can target a specific tumour in a patient's body. “I believe this type of individualisation could help us dramatically change the fate of cancer therapy,” he says.
First, though, there is the small matter of inoculating the world against Covid-19—a monumental undertaking that is already testing international goodwill. There have been mutterings from the rest of Europe and the US that Britain somehow sped up its regulatory process in order to be the first country to have a vaccine approved for widespread use. Dr Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious diseases expert, felt that the UK had not reviewed the vaccine “as carefully” as the US and had “rushed” the approval process. He later apologised for the remarks, saying: “I did not mean to imply any sloppiness even though it came out that way.”
Sahin says he has “no concerns at all” with the speed at which the vaccine was signed off. He expects the rest of Europe and the US to quickly follow suit. And over the next three months, he hopes to see more approvals for other vaccines, including the Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. He adds that Pfizer plans to manufacture 1.3 billion doses of their vaccine for 2021 and work is ongoing to increase that volume. He is, though, concerned at any suggestion of wealthy countries and companies seeking to jump the queue and is adamant theirs will be a vaccine for the world.
Diplomatic relations have also been strained by the interference of hackers, who have targeted various aspects of vaccine development. Russia has been accused of attempting to steal work at Oxford University and Imperial College London, while it emerged that a “cold supply chain”, established to transport vaccines around the world, has also been targeted. The identity of the hackers is unclear but the sophistication of the attacks suggest a nation state.
Mindful of such risks, Sahin says his IT team has been working with the German security services. “So far we have not encountered something limiting our work,” he says. “But, to be frank, if I do not hear something it just means people [within his team] did their job.”
The approval of the vaccine has also been met by a predictable backlash from the anti-vaxxer community, with various baseless theories circulating on social media. In response, Facebook has already promised to remove conspiracy theories from its platforms. But Sahin believes the tech firms must go further and redesign the algorithms that underpin much of social media to avoid mistruths being so readily shared. “This amplification of opinion is not healthy for our society,” he says.
Famous faces choosing to take the vaccine publicly would, he believes, help counter the anti-vaxxer narrative. I suggest the likes of the Queen and Sir David Attenborough, but he demurs. “It would be great if prominent people could do that, but, of course, I cannot request anyone,” he says.
Sahin was born in the Turkish coastal city of Iskenderun. His parents were factory workers and, when he was four, the family moved to Cologne as part of a programme to attract economic migrants to rebuild post-war Germany. “Even as a kid I was interested in how things work,” he says. “But it was not easy to get books. I had to go to the library to read.”
He studied medicine at Cologne University and after completing a PhD, joined Saarland University Hospital where he met his wife, Türeci, who also comes from a Turkish family settled in Germany. Sahin wears a Turkish amulet known as a nazar around his neck, but he prefers not to dwell on his own background. “I am not proud about my story,” he says. “At the end of the day what drives us is our work. We are not self-focused. In our company we have people from more than 60 countries. We should not ask for the ethnic background of the person, but the quality of science and contribution.... It is just a random fact that I am an immigrant.”
The couple, who have a teenage daughter, quickly understood when they met 30 or so years ago that they shared a similar clarity of purpose. In an interview with a German newspaper, Türeci said she and her husband began their wedding day, in 2002, wearing lab coats and resumed their research after a brief dash to the register office.
Sahin describes himself as more of an ideas man, while his wife provides an “extremely critical real-life check of what is possible”. Both are Muslim, and, for a time, his wife considered becoming a nun before choosing instead to focus on
The pair speak of a shared scientific curiosity and altruism. For Sahin, the desire to develop pioneering treatments started while working as a junior doctor at the oncology department of Cologne Hospital. He noticed a discrepancy between the research work on new therapies he was doing in the laboratories and being forced to tell his dying patients that there was nothing more they could do for them. “I knew as a scientist this is not true,” he says.
The faces of some of those he could not help haunt him today. “I sometimes remember my patients if I am confronted with a certain type of disease,” he says. “I have a picture of the patient and the interaction, and this motivates me.”
In 2001, he and Türeci cofounded Ganymed Pharmaceuticals—aimed at developing antibody treatments. It was sold for $1.4 billion to Japan's Astellas Pharma in 2016, enabling the pair to focus on mRNA research. They established BioNTech on a street in Mainz named An der Goldgrube, which translates to “at the goldmine”. It is fitting as Morgan Stanley estimates the vaccine could earn Pfizer and BioNTech around £10 billion in revenue.
Sahin says he and his wife have no personal interest in wealth, beyond being able to fund more research. The couple cycle everywhere and do not own a car. Pre-pandemic holidays meant a rented apartment in the Canary Islands, with good internet access for the inevitable work they needed to do. “Money is a tool to enable us to address our mission,” he says. “It does not mean anything beyond that.”
Fairness, he adds, has been their motivation since the start of the pandemic, combined with a belief in the power of cooperation. “It is not only the idea of us working together, but working together with a scientific community,” he says. “This makes power.”