The pandemic power couple who took a break from curing cancer to tackle Covid

On 9 November 2020, a pair of Wikipedia pages were set up for Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, married physicians of Turkish descent working in the field of immunology in Germany.

Had you been been presented with this fact a year earlier, and had you been following their work so far, you probably would have guessed any breakthrough into the public consciousness had been related to the cures for cancer they had devoted much of their lives to. However, a great deal has changed since the end of 2019 – and not just for them or their company, Biontech.

As is often the case with those credited for sparking a turning point in human history, it is perhaps an oversimplification to pin the success of the Pfizer/Biontech Covid-19 vaccination that was this week approved for use in the UK on just two people. Tureci and Sahin are not just a pair of plucky scientists who locked themselves in a lab till an answer was found, but the co-founders of a firm with a team of more than a thousand around them advancing centuries of scientific thought.

However, they were among the first to consider what their role might be in averting the pandemic we all now live under. At the start of 2020, while the couple ate breakfast, they discussed an article on a mysterious virus circulating in China that Sahin had read in The Lancet medical journal. After talking through a few scenarios for its trajectory, and considering Wuhan’s transport links, it was a matter of days before they redirected the work of their firm and some 500 of their employees into operation lightspeed – a race to find a vaccine for a virus that had not been known to science three months prior. At the time, there were four cases reported among Germany’s 83 million population.

“I like to read scientific literature and think about its meaning for our work”, Sahin told a local newspaper, who, taken aback by the speed of his response, had asked in an October interview if he was a clairvoyant. “I concluded that this virus was going to develop into a pandemic, and that’s why we held ourselves responsible to act on it here, because we have the abilities to develop vaccines.”

Fast forward to the end of 2020, and we are now living under one of the worst case scenarios the spouses had envisioned that January morning. In the space of a year, 1.5 million people have died, the world’s economies have plunged into recession and billions have seen their daily lives disrupted. There are now a few candidates for vaccines that offer the possibility of a return to normalcy, but the science produced by BionTech that is set to be scaled up and delivered by Pfizer is among the planet’s great hopes for an end to a period of isolation, economic destruction, and widespread sickness and death.

This outcome was never a certainty. There remained every chance that no effective remedy to Sars-CoV-2 would ever be found, that we could never book-end this episode in human history and instead would be forced to find a way to live with the ever present threat of the virus. However Sahin and Tureci were not only certain they were among the best placed people in the world to stop the virus, but they were also convinced they would succeed.

Much like their vaccine, their path to the present could well have been developed in a lab as the most efficient means of producing a pandemic-beating power couple. With small caveats for each – as a child Tureci had reportedly considered becoming a nun, Sahin, a footballer – the two grew up secure in the knowledge that they would throw themselves into the field of medicine. Sahin completed his PHD in 1993 and worked on a cancer ward at Saarland University Hospital, and today cites his experience telling terminal patients that no more could be done to help them as a motivator in his work. It was there that he met Tureci, who was studying for her medical degree, kicking off a romantic and intellectual partnership perhaps best summed up by a wedding day where the pair spent the morning in the lab, popped to a registry to exchange vows, then returned to check up on their experiments.

It’s scientific rigour, it’s curiosity, it’s dreaming of what could be and then putting it into practice. That’s what drives them

A year before their nuptials, they had co-founded Ganymed Pharmaceuticals where they worked on cancer treatments based on antibody development – a business they ultimately sold for €1.3bn. However it was BionTech, a startup with a focus on cancer immunotherapies, that would catapult them into the spotlight. Smaller than the titans of Big Pharma, the firm still boasts more than a thousand workers and funding from the likes of the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, who last year offered tens of millions to the firm for work on HIV and tuberculosis programmes. In the end their size and scale has meant that, when the coronavirus began to rear its head, they had the right immunotherapy background to consider tackling it, and the right relationship with Pfizer – who they were already collaborating with on a flu vaccine – to know they could roll it out.

Here comes the science bit. To drastically oversimplify what has the potential to be a Nobel-earning breakthrough for the firm, their vaccine works by taking a little bit of Covid’s RNA – the instruction manual that it uses to reproduce different parts of itself when it hijacks a cell – and injecting it into the body without the rest of the virus coming along for the ride. This strand of RNA in particular is responsible for creating spike proteins – the small knobbly hooks on the outside of the virus that you will have seen on mildly dystopian posters and in news articles time and again over the last year. By injecting that piece of RNA alone, the patient is able to develop an immune response – not to the virus itself, but to the protein hooks it uses to attach itself to its host. The next time Sars-Cov-2 comes along, the spike proteins are neutralised – meaning the virus can’t use them to get a grip on anything and reproduce – and the cycle of infection is broken.

As much as the pair have offered a potential cure for the pandemic, they also may represent a remedy for a certain view of the pharmaceutical industry. As big companies with bad public images when it came to drug pricing began to put their names to projects, concern grew that the horrors of the pandemic would be used to leverage as much cash as possible from desperate governments. However, Sahin and Tureci could not be further away from the public’s imagining of a big Pharma fatcat. The two are reported to live relatively humbly with their teenage daughter. They cycle to work and dress comfortably in jeans and t-shirts. Sahin retains a sentimental attachment to the blue-jewelled leather necklace he reportedly wears for good luck.

But that is not to say they have not profited from circumstance. Biontech may have started as a relatively small firm, but it is now valued at around £16.6bn – nearly four times that of Germany’s revered national airline Lufthansa. The couple are now among the top 100 wealthiest people in the country. They simply do not give off any sign that they care.

“I think he probably hasn’t looked at his bank account for nine months,” Sean Marett, the firm’s chief business and commercial officer, told BBC Radio 4. “It’s scientific rigour, it’s curiosity, it’s dreaming of what could be and then putting it into practice. That’s what drives them.”

The couple themselves, meanwhile, say their motivation for fighting back the virus has been simple – it’s their job. Tureci told The Times that their knowledge of the immune system made it their “duty” to contribute to the fight against the virus. Sahin, when asked about the international pressure their work faces, told the Wiesbadener Kurier, “As pharmacists we always have a high responsibility. It doesn’t matter whether the medication you’re developing is designed for a single patient or a much larger group. You focus on the work. We don’t have the option to grapple with that in our daily lives.”

As well as finding themselves thrust into the limelight as figures in modern medicine, they have also been moved into the often difficult position of becoming symbols – in their case, representing the benefits of a multicultural society. Sahin came to the country from the Turkish city of Iskenderun at age 4 with his father, who worked in a Ford factory as one of a generation of Gastarbeiter – or guest workers – who were invited to toil temporarily in the country to serve its post-war economic boom. Tureci’s father was also a Turkish immigrant, a doctor at a Catholic hospital who would take his West German-born daughter to surgeries with him.  For some, their story – at a time of rising anti-migrant sentiment in Germany and the west at large – is a sign of the incredible contribution of often scapegoated communities. For others that argument is bittersweet – a statement that for racial and ethnic groups marginalised by society the only way to be acceptable is to be exceptional.

However, the potential impact of their work is undeniable. Their vaccine will soon pass from the often impersonal worlds of science, economics and bureaucracy, to the deeply personal. It will mean people can hug their parents, friends can meet in bars and hospital workers can see light at the end of the tunnel. In January their vaccine was an idea in a laboratory. Less than a year later it is providing hope to people globally.

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