Two immigrant children from working-class families developed the Corona vaccine


The pharmaceutical company, BioNtech, together with its U.S. partner Pfizer, is on the verge of approving a Corona vaccine. This is a huge success for the German pharmaceutical company, which is led by a researcher and human medicine couple with Turkish roots. Their approach is centered on making the vaccine accessible to the whole world.

BioNtech was founded by oncologists Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci. Sahin is the company’s CEO, while Türeci is the company’s medical director

Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci are children of Turkish immigrants

Ugur Sahin came to Germany as a son of immigrants. He was born in Iskenderun in Hatay Province, Turkey, and came to Germany with his parents at a young age. He grew up in rather humble conditions, with his father working at the Ford factory in Cologne.

“My teacher wanted me to go to a lower secondary school. It was only through the intervention of my German neighbor that I was able to get a higher education,” the scientist states.

Ugur Sahin and the world had some good luck with the migrant child’s life path. Despite the circumstances Sahin junior persistently pursued his childhood dream of studying medicine and becoming a doctor. He graduated in Cologne and gained practical experience in various teaching hospitals in Germany. One such hospital was in Hamburg, where he met Özlem Türeci. The conditions for her were somewhat different from those of her future husband. Türeci, born in Germany, is the daughter of a Turkish doctor. Her father’s attitude of focusing on caring for patients still shapes who she is today, she says. She followed in his footsteps by studying medicine in Saarland.

They are working on a “revolution” in cancer therapy

Ugur Sahin met her when she was a young doctor at the university hospital in Homburg, Saarland. Both were moved by the question of how to cure cancer. To research this, they went to the University of Mainz, where Şahin is still a professor and Türeci a private lecturer. But they soon felt restricted by the limitations of university research.

Because scientific results were not able to reach patients quickly enough, Şahin and Türeci founded their first company, Ganymed Pharmaceuticals, in 2001. They sold the company to the Japanese pharmaceutical company Astellas in 2006 for more than 400 million euros. The founding of BioNTech followed in 2008. 

BioNtech: From fighting cancer to curing COVID-19

From small beginnings BioNtech, which is actually dedicated to the fight against cancer, has developed into one of the most important companies in the German biotech industry. However, things changed, when the Corona pandemic started.

Back in January, when Corona was still barely on anyone’s radar in Germany and the rest of Europe, the researchers began working – based on very early reports about the spread of the virus in China. The two scientists had already understood the consequences of the virus and committed themselves to what Sahin calls the “humanity project” – an effective vaccine for an infection, accessible to the entire world.

Featured image source: Imago/Sämmer



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