Did Turkish-German Scientists Really Find the Covid-19 Vaccine?

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A Turkish-German husband-and-wife team has emerged as frontrunners in the race to market. The race symbolizes a great effort to find the Covid-19 vaccine. That is, needless to say, would be an extraordinary achievement.

Turkish-born Ugur Sahin, 55, is CEO of German biotech firm BioNTech. He co-founded the firm with his wife and fellow board member Özlem Türeci, 53. Moreover, his former teacher, Prof Christoph Huber, an Austrian cancer expert, is also part of the foundation.

Prof Ugur Sahin (L) and Dr. Ozlem Tureci
Prof Ugur Sahin (L) and Dr. Ozlem Tureci

What is the Covid-19 Vaccine Breakthrough?

BioNTech and its US partner Pfizer announced that their vaccine could prevent more than 90% of people from getting Covid-19. According to early results from Phase 3 trials, results were quite satisfying. It is among 11 vaccines that are currently in the final stages of testing worldwide. So, this is involving other, rival pharmaceutical firms, and labs.

The world has never before seen such rapid progress towards vaccine development. Normally the research and trials take seven or eight years. BioNTech’s Covid team took the title “Project Lightspeed”.

The vaccine could prevent more than 90% of people from getting Covid-19
The vaccine could prevent more than 90% of people from getting Covid-19

How Would The Vaccine Work?

Prof Sahin and Dr. Türeci are immunotherapy specialists. They previously made their efforts focused more on cancer patients. They used messenger RNA (mRNA) molecules to trigger the production of certain proteins in cells. Thus, they could then train the immune system to attack cancer cells.

The role of mRNA in sending genetic instructions to cells could, Prof Sahin realized, be adapted to the fight against coronavirus. The idea is to trick the immune system with viral proteins so that antibodies can then attack the virus.

Trials of the Covid-19 vaccine has passed the final stage
Trials of the Covid-19 vaccine has passed the final stage

When magazines covered news of the virulence of coronavirus in January, based on data from the outbreak in Wuhan, China, BioNTech was already in a good position. Because it already teamed up with Pfizer in 2018 to develop mRNA-based flu vaccines.

BioNTech reported on Monday that the vaccine efficacy rate – above 90% – had reached a week after the second dose. Protection would be achieved 28 days after the first vaccine dose. Out of 43,538 participants in the trial, they had confirmed 94 Covid-19 cases.

Who are Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci?

Prof Sahin and Dr. Türeci founded BioNTech in the western German city of Mainz in 2008. Both are children of Turkish immigrants. Ugur Sahin was four when he moved to Germany with his mother to join his father, who was working at a Ford factory in Cologne.

German Turkish scientist Prof Ugur Sahin
German Turkish scientist Prof Ugur Sahin

Ugur Sahin studied medicine at the University of Cologne and says he often stayed in the lab late into the evening, before cycling home. Today he still cycles to work. “He never changed from being incredibly humble and personable,” said Matthias Kromayer of venture capital firm MIG AG, who invested in BioNTech right from the start.

Dr. Ozlem Tureci
Dr. Ozlem Tureci

Before the pandemic, BioNTech researched individualized cancer treatments based on the immune system, but so far none of its drugs has reached the approval stage. Özlem Türeci, on the other hand, grew up with the strong figure image of her father. He was a doctor – he had his practice at home. “I could not imagine any other profession even when I was a young girl,” she said.


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