Behind Pfizer's vaccine, an understated husband-and-wife 'dream team'

By Ludwig Burger and Patricia Weiss FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Positive data on BioNTech and U.S. partner Pfizer Inc's COVID-19 vaccine is an unlikely success for the married couple behind the German biotech firm, who have devoted their lives to harnessing the immune system against cancer.Pfizer said on Monday said its experimental vaccine was more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 based on initial data from a large study. Pfizer and BioNTech are the first drugmakers to show successful data from a large-scale clinical trial of a coronavirus vaccine

Reuters November 10, 2020 00:05:48 IST
Behind Pfizer's vaccine, an understated husband-and-wife 'dream team'

Behind Pfizers vaccine an understated husbandandwife dream team

By Ludwig Burger and Patricia Weiss

FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Positive data on BioNTech and U.S. partner Pfizer Inc's COVID-19 vaccine is an unlikely success for the married couple behind the German biotech firm, who have devoted their lives to harnessing the immune system against cancer.Pfizer said on Monday said its experimental vaccine was more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 based on initial data from a large study.

Pfizer and BioNTech are the first drugmakers to show successful data from a large-scale clinical trial of a coronavirus vaccine. The companies said they have so far found no serious safety concerns and expect to seek U.S. emergency use authorization later this month.

From humble roots as the son of a Turkish immigrant working at a Ford factory in Cologne, BioNTech Chief Executive Ugur Sahin, 55, now figures among the 100 richest Germans, together with his wife and fellow board member Oezlem Tuereci, 53, according to weekly Welt am Sonntag.

The market value of Nasdaq-listed BioNTech, which the pair co-founded, had ballooned to $21 billion as of Friday's close from $4.6 billion a year ago, with the firm set to play a major role in mass immunisation against the coronavirus.

"Despite his achievements, he never changed from being incredibly humble and personable," said Matthias Kromayer, board member of venture capital firm MIG AG, whose funds have backed BioNTech since its inception in 2008.

He added Sahin would typically walk into business meetings wearing jeans and carrying his signature bicycle helmet and backpack with him.

Doggedly pursuing his childhood dream of studying medicine and becoming a physician, Sahin worked at teaching hospitals in Cologne and the southwestern city of Homburg, where he met Tuereci during his early academic career.

Medical research and oncology became a shared passion.

Tuereci, the daughter of a Turkish physician who had migrated to Germany, said in a media interview that even on the day of their wedding, both made time for lab work.

Together they honed in on the immune system as a potential ally in the fight against cancer and tried to address the unique genetic makeup of each tumour.

Life as entrepreneurs started in 2001 when they set up Ganymed Pharmaceuticals to develop cancer-fighting antibodies, but Sahin - by then a professor at Mainz university - never gave up academic research and teaching.

They won funding from MIG AG as well as from Thomas and Andreas Struengmann, who sold their generic drugs business Hexal to Novartis in 2005.

That venture was sold to Japan's Astellas in 2016 for up to $1.4 billion. By then, the team behind Ganymed was already busy building BioNTech, founded in 2008, to pursue a much broader range of cancer immunotherapy tools.

That included mRNA, a versatile messenger substance to send genetic instructions into cells.

DREAM TEAM

For MIG's Kromayer, Tuereci and Sahin are a "dream team" in that they reconciled their visions with the constraints of reality.

The BioNTech story took a twist when Sahin in January came across a scientific paper on a new coronavirus outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan and it struck him how small the step was from anti-cancer mRNA drugs to mRNA-based viral vaccines.

BioNTech quickly assigned about 500 staff to project "light speed" to work on several possible compounds, winning pharma giant Pfizer and Chinese drugmaker Fosun as partners in March.

Matthias Theobald, a fellow oncology professor at Mainz university who has worked with Sahin for 20 years, said his tendency towards understatement belies a relentless ambition to transform medicine, exemplified by the leap of faith to a COVID-19 vaccine.

"He is a very modest and humble person. Appearances mean little to him. But he wants to create the structures that allow him to realise his visions and that's where is aspirations are far from modest," Theobald said.

Sahin told Reuters on Monday the read-out amounted to an “extraordinary success rate” but that he did not know earlier in the year how difficult the task overall would be.

“It’s certainly not something that you would easily voice as a serious scientist, but it was within the realms of possibility from the beginning.”

(Editing by Nick Macfie)

This story has not been edited by Firstpost staff and is generated by auto-feed.

Updated Date:

TAGS:

also read

France, Germany to agree to NATO role against Islamic State - sources
| Reuters
World

France, Germany to agree to NATO role against Islamic State - sources | Reuters

By Robin Emmott and John Irish | BRUSSELS/PARIS BRUSSELS/PARIS France and Germany will agree to a U.S. plan for NATO to take a bigger role in the fight against Islamic militants at a meeting with President Donald Trump on Thursday, but insist the move is purely symbolic, four senior European diplomats said.The decision to allow the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to join the coalition against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq follows weeks of pressure on the two allies, who are wary of NATO confronting Russia in Syria and of alienating Arab countries who see NATO as pushing a pro-Western agenda."NATO as an institution will join the coalition," said one senior diplomat involved in the discussions. "The question is whether this just a symbolic gesture to the United States

China's Xi says navy should become world class
| Reuters
World

China's Xi says navy should become world class | Reuters

BEIJING Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday called for greater efforts to make the country's navy a world class one, strong in operations on, below and above the surface, as it steps up its ability to project power far from its shores.China's navy has taken an increasingly prominent role in recent months, with a rising star admiral taking command, its first aircraft carrier sailing around self-ruled Taiwan and a new aircraft carrier launched last month.With President Donald Trump promising a US shipbuilding spree and unnerving Beijing with his unpredictable approach on hot button issues including Taiwan and the South and East China Seas, China is pushing to narrow the gap with the U.S. Navy.Inspecting navy headquarters, Xi said the navy should "aim for the top ranks in the world", the Defence Ministry said in a statement about his visit."Building a strong and modern navy is an important mark of a top ranking global military," the ministry paraphrased Xi as saying.