The Scientists Behind the Vaccine

Illustrated by Neha Adari

When Pfizer launched its COVID-19 vaccine, news started appearing about BioNTech, the company Pfizer worked with for the development of the vaccine. Unlike Pfizer, BioNTech was not a part of Big Pharma, did not have an international presence and wasn’t behind any medication that was as widespread as the COVID-19 vaccine. The company was owned by two doctors instead of entrepreneurs or business executives; a couple who were the children of Turkish immigrants who moved to Germany during the 1970s to find work. As a person from Turkey, I wanted to highlight these two brilliant scientists’ lives and achievements since I haven’t seen much of them in the American press.

Dr. Ugur Sahin and Dr. Ozlem Tureci’s company worked with Pfizer to create a vaccine that used messenger RNAs. In fact, two years ago, Dr. Sahin mentioned his company would be able to use messenger RNA technology in a vaccine in the future [1]. BioNTech started working on a vaccine around January, before most biotechnology companies, since Dr. Sahin thought that the virus would spread from China, and was proven correct a couple of weeks later. There’s an established partnership between BioNTech and Pfizer for working on flu vaccines, but this was an entirely new challenge to tackle [1]. 

Dr. Sahin was born in Iskenderun, Turkey. When he was four years old, his parents moved to Cologne, Germany to work in an automotive factory. Similarly, Dr. Tureci’s parents moved from Istanbul, Turkey to Cologne to find factory jobs, and Dr. Tureci was born in Germany. They met during the start of their teaching careers and began mainly focusing on research and biotechnology [1]. Now, they are both award-winning scientists and highly respected within their fields. Dr. Sahin is the recipient of the Mustafa Award, which is given to Muslims in science and technology for those who excel in those fields [1]. 

Dr. Sahin leads BioNTech’s “research and development of neoantigen-specific mRNA cancer vaccines, which are individually tailored and produced on demand according to the profile of non-synonymous mutations identified by next-generation sequencing in patients’ tumors” [2]. Meanwhile, Dr. Tureci is the current President of the Association for Cancer Immunotherapy (CIMT) in Germany. She is working more on cancer research and aims to use messenger RNA technology in cancer treatments [3]. 

The couple’s success was a big headline in Germany and the rest of Europe, where the immigration of Turkish citizens has been a problem, specifically with the rise of the conservative right in German politics. However, BioNTech’s participation in vaccine development is a step towards understanding the positive effects of immigration to countries with more resources and funding for the sciences.

Edited by: Haleigh Pine
Illustrated by: Neha Adari

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