Behind Covid-19 Vaccine Is A Turkish Muslim Couple

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by Khalid Bashir Gura

SRINAGAR: Almost a year-long wait for a possible cure to the contagion that killed more than 1.2 million across the world, finally there is something positive. German pharmaceutical company, the BioNTech and American pharma giant, Pfizer have finally announced that they have a vaccine that is 90 per cent effective in managing Covid-19.

A colorized scanning electron micrograph of a cell (green) heavily infected with particles (orange) from the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient sample.

This sent the entire world starting from the US president-elect Joe Biden into a sort of ecstasy. Now two days later, the focus is on who did it?

It is now being reported globally that a researcher couple is behind the breakthrough: they are German citizens, a Turkish Muslim couple – Dr Ugur Sahin and his wife Dr Ozlem Tureci.

“It could be the beginning of the end of the Covid era,” Dr Sahin told the New York Times that ran a special story on the couple.

Turkish Muslim immigrant couple Dr Ugur Sahin and his wife Dr Ozlem Tureci who are behind the Covid-19 vaccine. They own a company that is now worth the US $ 21 Bn. A New York Times photo

“Dr Sahin was born in Iskenderun, Turkey. When he was 4, his family moved to Cologne, Germany, where his parents worked at a Ford factory,” the newspaper said. “He grew up wanting to be a doctor and became a physician at the University of Cologne. In 1993, he earned a doctorate from the university for his work on immunotherapy in tumour cells.”

It was while working as an oncologist in Homburg that he met his future wife, Dr Türeci, the British newspaper The Telegraph reported, informing that, “her father was a Turkish doctor who immigrated from Istanbul and she was born in Germany. She is the chief medical officer of BioNTech.”

As a young man, Prof Sahin battled against the odds to pursue his dream of a career in medicine — a long-shot for the son of a migrant car worker.

All these years later, “Prof Sahin and his wife, Özlem Türeci, are among the richest 100 people in Germany. They sold their first business for $1.4bn (£1bn) in 2016, and BioNTech’s value has soared to $21bn (£16bn) in the wake of the vaccine breakthrough,” The Telegraph reported. The New York Times reported that prior to starting his own research company, Dr Sahin worked under Rolf Zinkernagel, the 1996 Nobel Prize winner in medicine.

“Despite the couple’s wealth and business success, Prof Sahin remains in academia. He still teaches at Mainz University. He is described by colleagues as “humble”, and is known for turning up to business meetings carrying his bicycle helmet,” the report added.

Quoting his colleague, The Telegraph said: “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,” said Matthias Theobald, a colleague at Mainz University.

“After gaining his doctor with a thesis on immunotherapy treatment for cancer cells, Şahin followed his PhD supervisor to Saarland University in the town of Homburg, where Türeci was studying medicine. The couple married in 2002, interrupting their research only briefly to slip out of their lab coats and dash to the registry office on their wedding day. Their daughter was born four years later,” British newspaper The Guardian reported.

When research funds were hard to come by “we simply started our own company”, Şahin told the news-portal Heise. “Their first company, founded in 2001, was called Ganymed – not after the handsome hero of Greek myth but a Turkish expression roughly meaning “earned through hard work”, as Türeci told Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of the largest daily newspapers in Germany.

Their second company BioNTech which they founded in 2008, has currently 1300 employees. “The couple first set to develop immunotherapy cancer treatments, using genetic material called mRNA to train the human body to produce its own antigen,” The Guardian reported.

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About Author

A Mass Communication and Journalism postgraduate from the University of Kashmir, Khalid is a writer by choice and a journalist by chance.

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