Meet the couple who invented Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine

DUBAI: News that a Pfizer vaccine is 90% effective against COVID-19 has been hailed as a “miracle”. In the race against time, the announcement signalled that the fight against the virus is now turning in man’s favour.

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On Monday, following the vaccine breakthrough report, the company’s stock price went ballistic, along with oil prices. Airline stocks soared, too, on hopes the world will start flying again.

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Husband-and-wife team

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The science behind it, however, is the work of BioNTech. The brains behind the company is a husband-and-wife team of researchers: Ugur Sahin, 55, and Ozlem Tureci, 53, founders based in the German city of Mainz. Their extraordinary lab work, done in anonymity, goes back many years. The rapid progress of their candidate vaccine, BNT162, has now shot them to global recognition.

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In the past, they focussed on developing cancer therapies, essentially by programming cells to produce therapeutic proteins. For a decade, their company had never brought a product to market. During a 2018 conference of infectious disease experts in Berlin, Prof. Sahin made a bold statement: that his company might be able to use its “messenger RNA technology” to rapidly develop a vaccine in the event of a global pandemic.

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That prediction is panning out now. The couple dedicated their lives in tireless work to push cancer vaccines. Today, they are hailed as the key scientists that could potentially help mankind neutralise the corovirus that has so far left 1.27 million people dead and 51.5 million infected. BioNTech is leveraging Pfizer’s clinical trial, marketing, manufacturing prowess. Its alliance with China’s Fosun Pharma gives it a good shot of the mainland market, too.

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Immunotherapy expert

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Born on September 19, 1965 in Iskenderun, Turkey, Dr Sahin is a physician and immunologist. When he was 4, his family moved to Cologne, Germany. His parents worked at a Ford plant. He grew up dreaming to be a doctor, and became a physician at the University of Cologne. In 1993, he earned a doctorate from the university for his work on immunotherapy in tumor cells. He is the chief executive and co-founder of biotech company BioNTech.

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Dr Tureci is the daughter of a Turkish physician who immigrated to Germany from Istanbul. Born in 1967 in Lastrup, Germany, she first wanted to be a nun, wound up in a medical school and became one of Germany’s pioneering research scientists. She is currently the chief medical officer of BioNTech.

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On the day they were married, Dr. Sahin and Dr. Tureci returned to the lab after the ceremony, according to a New York Times report. The pair was initially focused on research and teaching, including at the University of Zurich, where Dr. Sahin worked in the lab of Rolf Zinkernagel, who won (together with Australia’s Peter C. Doherty) a Nobel Prize in 1996 in medicine for the discovery of how the immune system recognises virus-infected cells.

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In 2001, the couple founded Ganymed Pharmaceuticals, which developed drugs to treat cancer using monoclonal antibodies. In 2008, they founded BioNTech, with the aim of using a wider range of technologies, including messenger RNA, to treat cancer. “We want to build a large European pharmaceutical company,” Dr. Sahin said in an interview with the Wiesbaden Courier, a local paper. They sold Ganymed for $1.4 billion in 2016.

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Even before the pandemic, BioNTech was abuzz with research activity, and raised hundreds of millions of dollars. It currently has more than 1,800 staff, with offices in Berlin, other German cities and Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

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In 2018, it began a partnership with Pfizer. Last year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation invested $55 million to fund its work treating HIV and TB. Also in 2019, Dr. Sahin was awarded the Mustafa Prize, a biennial Iranian prize for Muslims in science and technology. In June 2020, BioNTech received $250 million from Singapore’s Temasek Holdings and other investors through a private placement of mandatory convertible bonds.

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Clinical trial

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The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is unlike any other out in the market today. While administered like other vaccines — via an intramuscular injection — it contains an anti-viral messenger RNA. This technique has never been deployed in the past against any disease.

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The mRNA vaccine injects synthetic genes “programmed” to use the human body’s own proteins to generate “fake” viruses similar to a target pathogen (like SARS-CoV-2) — which then trigger a response from our own immune system.

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A tried-and-tested technique in making vaccines is to use virus particles that are partly alive (attenuated), similar to the smallpox vaccine invented by Dr Edward Jenner in the UK in 1796, or “killed” (inactivated), similar to the hepatitis, polio and flu shots currently in use. But this method takes time.

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The untested mRNA, on the other hand, has one big plus: it reduces vaccine development into a software. This allows mRNA shots to be generated and manufactured in weeks, and produced at scale more rapidly than conventional vaccines.

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Synthetic genes

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mRNA vaccines had been under development since the 1990s. It essentially “trains” the human body to produce the antibodies necessary to fight the real virus when a person gets infected. As a vaccine development platform, mRNA is a relatively quick and inexpensive way to mass produce vaccines, and is theorically safer too, as it doesn’t use live or killed versions of the virus used in vaccine platforms in use today.

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The shorter manufacturing times, safety and potential efficacy of mRNA vaccines could make a huge impact on public health — and revenues. Pfizer and BioNTech could, together, generate $13 revenues from the coronavirus vaccine, according to some estimates.

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On July 22, 2020, the US government placed an initial order with Pfizer of 100 million doses for $1.95 billion, with an option to acquire up to 500 million additional doses for the US. The European Union also signed contracts to supply 200 million doses of a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine for the EU, 30 million doses for the United Kingdom, and 120 million doses for Japan if proven safe.

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Protection

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Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, called BNT2b2, underwent trials in the US and China. On May 4, 2020, the first patient enrolled in Pfizer’s vaccine trial was given the shot at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. Volunteers and vaccinators had no clue as whether they were being injected with a real dose (experimental vaccine) or a placebo (control) made of saline solution.

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Eventually, some 40,000 people took part in the trial — a “double-blind”, randomised, placebo-controlled experiment. A statement released October 16, 2020 (Friday) suggested the company’s coronavirus vaccine candidate could be ready for distribution throughout the US by end-November.

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No family car

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On Tuesday, November 10, 2020, the value of their company BioNTech soared to $21 billion in the wake of the vaccine news. As such Prof. Sahin and Dr. Tureci are now among the 100 richest Germans. The two billionaires live with their teenage daughter in a modest apartment near their office. Each morning, they pedal to work in Mainz. They do not own a car.

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