Ugur Şahin and Ozlem Tureci:
Ugur Şahin and Ozlem Tureci: German couple behind Covid vaccine Image Credit: Ador T Bustamante/Gulf News

Coronavirus has been a great leveller. It matters not who or where you are, where you are or how you go about your business, you are just as likely to contract it as the next person. It has put our world on hold, turned our lives upside down and made us live in ways and on means no one could have thought possible when 2019 rolled into 2020.

But when 2020 rolls in 2021, there is every chance that you and I will be willingly rolling up our sleeves — wouldn’t you be mad not to? — for jabs to mostly beat this bug. Earlier this week, while the votes were still being counted in the United States, Pfizer and BioNTech became the first drugmakers to show successful data from a large-scale clinical trial of a coronavirus vaccine. And it has been shown to be 90 per cent effective so far in widespread trials.

More on Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine

Chances are that in the next round of Nobel Prize appraisals for Medicine, the names of Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tuereci will be top of the list for consideration, and they will be talked about in the same sentences as Alexander Fleming who discovered penicillin, Jonas Salk for his work on the polio vaccine, and Louis Pasteur who gave his name to the bacteria-killing process.

Sahin is the 55-year-old son of Turkish immigrants who toiled for years on the production line of a Ford factory in Cologne. His 53-year-old wife is also from an immigrant family. Working together, they came up with the vaccine at their own BioNTech firm and worked in partnership with Pfiser to make it work and get it out to testing.

Much more than money

If this were about riches alone, both companies expect to share an immediate bonanza estimated to be worth at least $13 billion (Dh47.7 billion). The market value of Nasdaq-listed BioNtech alone — the pair set it up in Germany in 2008 — soared to $21 billion this week. Money, of course, isn’t everything. And this is about more than money. Much more.

Sahin typically walks into business meetings wearing jeans and carrying his signature bicycle helmet and backpack with him.

He was born in Iskenderun, Turkey and his family joined the ranks of “gastarbeiten” — immigrant workers who toiled to create the economic engine of West Germany in the post-war years. It was a crude awakening to a four-year-old who grew up wanting to be a doctor, He succeeded, graduating as a physician at the University of Cologne. In 1993, he earned a doctorate from the university for his work on immunotherapy in tumour cells.

Early in his career, he met Tuereci. The daughter of a Turkish physician who also immigrated to West Germany, she had early hopes of becoming a nun but ultimately wound up studying medicine.

The pair were initially focused on research and teaching, including at the University of Zurich, where Sahin worked in the lab of Rolf Zinkernagel, who won the 1996 Nobel Prize in medicine. Then Sahin and Tuerici honed in on the immune system as a potential ally in the fight against cancer and tried to address the unique genetic make-up 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.

Substance that changed the world

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. And that messenger substance has likely changed the world now, paving a way for Covid-19 to be turned back.

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 anticancer 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.

Last Monday, when news broke of the best hope yet for a vaccine, stock markets soared — so too did the spirits of countless millions who have endured this pandemic through personal losses, job losses and loss of hope.

In July, Pfizer and BioNTech initiated a late-stage clinical trial on a coronavirus vaccine. Half of the people got the vaccine, while the other half got a placebo of salt water. The companies then waited for people to get sick to determine if the vaccine offered any protection.

So far, 94 participants out of nearly 44,000 came down with Covid-19. An independent board of experts looked at how many of those people got the vaccine, and how many got the placebo. That early analysis suggests the vaccine is over 90 per cent effective.

As is standard for clinical trials, the data was “blinded,” meaning that no one except the independent board — not the volunteers, doctors, or the company’s top executives — knows how many of the 94 people sickened by the virus got the vaccine or the placebo. Given the estimate that the vaccine is over 90 per cent effective, however, we can safely assume very few people who were vaccinated got Covid-19.

To get a sense of how good these results are, consider that on the low end, influenza vaccines are 40 to 60 per cent effective at best. So yes, the Sahin and Tuereci vaccine looks good. Real good. So good in fact that anti-vaxxers might indeed forgo their cuckoo beliefs and roll up their sleeves and join the line.

Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe