Get To Know: the duo and story behind the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine

Today we’re getting to know two people. We hear a lot about the COVID-19 vaccine, but not a lot about the people behind it. Say hello to the husband and wife duo behind the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, Dr. Ugur Sahin and Dr. Özlem Türeci. 

They met early in each other’s careers, ultimately marrying, working together and initially founding Ganymed Pharmaceuticals, which developed drugs to treat cancer using monoclonal antibodies. They sold the company in 2016 for $1.4 billion. 

Several years later, the pair also founded BioNTech, a company that was gaining momentum well before the pandemic. BioNTech managed to raise hundreds of millions of dollars, as well as employing over 1800 staff members, focusing on a range of technologies, including messenger RNA, to treat cancer. In 2018, BioNTech partnered with Pfizer on flu vaccinations – Sahin as the CEO and Türeci as the Chief Medical Officer.  

Fast forward to January 2020

Sahin sent his team to work on the COVID-19 vaccine way back in January 2020, after reading a medical article that left him convinced that COVID-19 at the time was spreading quickly in parts of China, and would turn into a pandemic. Sahin made a “rough design over one weekend” for the vaccine. Over that weekend, Sahin designed 10 different candidates on his computer. The winning candidate was designed in just a few hours. 

It was then announced in March that BioNTech and Pfizer were to partner. Pfizer handled the logistics, including manufacturing the vaccine in large batches and organising the Phase 3 trial. BioNTech, meanwhile, handled the vaccine’s design. By November 9, it was announced that the vaccine was 90% effective. 

Known for their modesty, the pair live with their teenage daughter in an apartment near their office where they ride bicycles to work and do not own a car.

Both of them won the Financial Times person of the year award in 2020 for their work, as well as the Axel Springer Award. It was announced earlier this year that the pair will also receive the Knight Commander’s Cross of the Federal Order of Merit, one of Germany’s highest honours. 

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